by James A. Bacon
Without electricity, contemporary American civilization collapses. We depend upon electricity to operate the pumps that supply our water, to run the refrigerators that preserve our food and to power the economy by which we earn a living. That’s why, I believe, Dominion Virginia Power will have no trouble winning regulatory approval to spend as much as a half billion dollars strengthening its transmission grid in Virginia over the next five to ten years.
The company maintains more than 400 electrical substations on 6,400 miles of high-voltage power transmission lines. The utility intends to bolster the security around vulnerable substations, create a new, hardened operations center and bolster its spare equipment inventory, reports Peter Bacque with the Times-Dispatch.
The electric power industry has long worried about the vulnerability of the national power grid to disruption, whether by a thermonuclear pulse, cyber-sabotage or terrorists. The terrorist scenario suddenly looms large since revelations last week of an attack that knocked out a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission substation near San Jose, Calif. last year. The power company was able to prevent devastating disruptions by rerouting electric power around the station, but security experts warn that coordinated attacks on multiple targets could cause cascading blackouts that could plunge much of the country into darkness.
We need to build resilience into our electric grid. In the short term, that means hardening the system against attacks, building inventories of critical parts that take weeks or more to replace (like the transformer pictured above) and taking the other measures proposed by Dominion. As the California attack showed, the concerns are not theoretical. The threat is real. We have no time to waste. Failure to act would be the height of irresponsibility.
In the longer run, we must recognize that this hardening of the existing infrastructure is only a partial solution. We need ask whether the existing structure best serves the public’s needs. Should we consider creating a “smart grid” that deploys digital technologies to sense faults in the system and allow for self-healing without manual intervention? (Does Dominion have such capabilities already — I don’t know.) Should we redesign the grid for bi-directional energy flow, which creates far more flexibility than the one-way flows that prevail today? Should we create mechanisms by which customers large and small can, under voluntary agreement, shed electric loads to reduce the strain on a damaged system?
More fundamentally, we need to ask: Which provides more resilience — a centralized system organized around large power generating facilities in remote areas linked by large transmission facilities…. or a decentralized system that encompasses numerous independent producers drawing upon solar, wind, co-generation and other energy sources?
I don’t pretend to know the answers. But we need to ask the questions. We live in a insanely complex, interconnected world in which chaos theory applies and black swan events appear seemingly from nowhere — a butterfly flaps its wings in Borneo and the power grid collapses in Virginia. Maintaining the integrity of the electric grid is a matter of life and death. It is, quite literally, the most significant public safety issue we face.
While I respect Dominion’s engineering prowess and appreciate its commitment to the public welfare, we need other voices in this discussion. Dominion is going to advocate a system that safeguards the public welfare on terms that are most advantageous to Dominion. That’s not good enough. First we decide what’s best for Virginia. Only then do we decide what’s fair and reasonable for Dominion and Virginia’s other regulated utilities.There are currently no comments highlighted.