The Hurricane Irene blackouts weren’t inevitable

at 10:30 AM ET, 09/01/2011


(Glenn Russell - AP)
The term “infrastructure” gets tossed around a lot in political debates. But it tends to be used rather vaguely. “Our infrastructure is in disrepair.” “Congress should boost infrastructure spending to create jobs.” What does that mean, exactly?

Here’s one concrete example. Hurricane Irene wasn’t the doomsday device many were predicting, but it still managed to snap enough power lines to leave more than 5 million people in 13 states without electricity. That, in turn, put a cramp on productivity — to take just one (admittedly small-bore) example, Paul Krugman was unable to post while the lights were off. And this doesn’t just happen during hurricanes: Massoud Amin, who runs the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota, estimates that power outages cost the U.S. economy between $80 billion and $188 billion each year.

That’s why energy writers and tech types have seized on the Irene blackouts to make a renewed pitch for smarter grid technology. This past July, officials from ComEd, the largest utility in Illinois, laid out how technology that allows two-way communication between the utility and the grid could have helped prevent blackouts during severe storms. The utility would have immediately known which customers were without power, rather than waiting for frantic phone calls to roll in, and could have pinpointed outage areas and prevented them from becoming widespread — by rerouting power, say.

ComEd figures a smarter grid would’ve led to 175,000 fewer people without power after just one severe July thunderstorm in Illinois. Granted, ComEd isn’t a disinterested player here — the utility is currently lobbying for local rate increases to finance smart-grid upgrades — but many other companies and analysts are saying the same thing.

So how much would this all cost? A recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute estimates that implementing smart-grid technology nationwide could cost, at the high end, $476 billion over 20 years. (The 2009 stimulus poured $4.5 billion into a handful of smart-grid pilot projects around the country.) Amin, for his part, calculates that doing so would reduce the cost of blackouts by at least $49 billion per year. A smart grid obviously can’t prevent all power outages, especially in a violent hurricane, but it can reduce the damage considerably.

Granted, avoiding outages isn’t the only thing that improved grid technology could do: As Boyd Cohen notes, Europe is plotting a regional smart grid that can juggle different types of intermittent renewable power, such as wind from up north and solar down south. A more flexible grid could help utilities manage electricity demand better and reduce the need for additional plants during peak hours. (More on how that would work here.) Amin argues that these savings are worth at least $20 billion annually. EPRI claims the total benefits could reach as high as $2 trillion. A smarter grid could, in theory, pay for itself.

Either way, widespread blackouts aren’t just an unavoidable fact of life. Meanwhile, climate scientists warn that global warming “is expected to cause a northward shift in storm tracks, resulting in decreases in precipitation in areas such as the Southwest United States, but increases in many areas to the north and east.” No reason to think Irene will be the last time East Coasters have to fret about the power going out.

 
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