America’s Electric Grid Is a Matter of National Security
by Kelly Ayotte Charles Hernick
Originally published in The National Interest
October 18, 2018
You are not alone when you experience that sinking feeling when your smartphone battery is low; “ Nomofobia” is actually a new field of medical research. However, the far more serious problem that consumers like you face is assuring the reliability of the grid that ultimately supplies electricity to your charger—along with power for more and more of the daily products you use as everything is digitized and electrified. In fact, it is a matter of national security.
It will take a new generation of advanced energy solutions to reduce the magnitude and duration of disruptive events—whether malicious attacks or natural disasters.
The vulnerabilities of our electric grid are well documented. In 2017, the Council on Foreign Relations released a report on the vulnerability of the U.S. power grid, noting the electrical system’s central role to the economy and in the smooth functioning of society.
In general terms, Americans are also aware of the major threats; for example, a recent Gallup poll indicated that cyberterrorism, the use of computers to cause disruption or fear in society, was among the most critical threats perceived.
And our grid’s capability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and rapidly recover from disruptive events is not merely a theoretical exercise. Considering Russia’s recent hacking of the electrical grid, some fears are justified. On a recent trip to Russia, Energy Secretary Rick Perry addressed the issue head on, expressing “ disappointment and concern ” to Russia’s energy minister about Moscow’s continued attempts to hack America’s power grid.
We have also already witnessed natural disruptions to the grid. Hurricane Florence devastated lives and livelihoods in the Carolinas; thankfully, through the storm and immediately after, solar power proved reliable and quick to restart the next day.
Additionally, the electric grid is a critical artery of American commerce—the place where traditional power plants and transmission lines intersect with a growing number of new, distributed energy resources that fuel growth in the private sector. Accordingly, leading corporate consumers have effectively established their own utilities to generate 100 percent renewable energy and they are using advanced technologies like Bloom Energy fuel cells for sustainable and interruption free service.
The secure and resilient grid of the future won’t include just macro- or micro-solutions. It must include all of the solutions needed to prevent grid to attacks and cascading failures that would jeopardize America’s economy and national security, especially as it relates to U.S. military installations and operations.
Fortunately, the Department of Energy is focused on the issue, having recently established the new Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) to elevate the focus on energy infrastructure protection and enable more coordinated preparedness and response to natural and man-made threats. The solutions won’t necessarily be simple, but we know some of the options that should be on the table.
Permitting for advanced energy must be streamlined so solutions can come online sooner. Comprehensive planning and decisionmaking must balance the situation-specific pros and cons of additional long-distance transmission versus local alternatives.
We must clear other regulatory hurdles to strengthening the grid. In particular, we need to encourage private investment and leverage free-market forces. This means allowing grid planners, utilities and customers to choose their electricity sources. Innovations in energy efficiency and energy storage, along with technology like cloud computing, are increasingly competitive and can help close the gaps in our grid.
The Department of Defense’s leading use of micro-grids, small modular nuclear reactors, and solar combined with storage is well documented to reduce the risk of fuel supply disruptions and assure on-site, autonomous generation . Islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico are heading in the same direction having learned lessons over decades of importing costly, heavy polluting fuels.
Across the United States, diverse landscapes, natural resources and urban developments will mandate diverse solutions. A combination of micro generation, storage, and macro transmission will necessarily be a part of an all-of-the-above approach. In Washington, state capitals, and utility headquarters, this wide-ranging discussion is ongoing. At home, consumers are sometimes anxious.
We will all feel safer when our biggest concern is cell phone battery life. With thoughtful policies and market-based approach to deploying cost-effective solutions advanced energy technologies will bolster America’s critical energy infrastructure, and the widespread deployment of clean energy solutions will have us breathing easier too.
Kelly Ayotte is a former U.S. Senator representing New Hampshire who is currently a senior advisor for Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) Forum and a board member for Bloom Energy. Charles Hernick is the director of policy and advocacy at CRES Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organizaiton committed to education the public and influencing the national conversation about clean energy.