Thursday, October 18, 2018
A weekly radio newsmagazine
Timely, in-depth, progressive analysis since 1991
A weekly public affairs radio program

Shift to Distributed, Decentralized Energy Grid Gains Momentum

Interview with energy security strategist Joel Gordes, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The concept of distributed energy – that is, a decentralized energy grid that has small, redundant systems mostly powered by renewable energy – is slowly gaining ground as a response to weather disasters.  Distributed energy can also improve resilience in responding to outages caused by climate disruption – as well as cyber and physical attacks targeting a nation’s energy infrastructure.
Joel Gordes, a Connecticut-based, energy security strategist, has been focused for many years on the importance of designing energy systems that are resilient against such threats. He recently testified before the Connecticut Public Utilities Regulatory Authority about the issue. At that hearing, Gordes called on the state to incentivize the electric utilities to decentralize the energy grid in exchange for healthy rates of return.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Gordes about the progress being made and the obstacles that remain, to make decentralized energy grids a reality across the U.S.

JOEL GORDES: The problem is that when there’s a disaster or something, they concentrate on what the cause of that disaster was, rather than looking at it as an all-hazards approach. In order to do that, you have to look at the following types of problems that can arise. The first is a fuel supply interruption with cost escalation going with it. That’s happened to us in the past over oil when we were much more dependent on the Middle East. Then there’s the physical security of the generation, transmission, distribution and control system. That includes all forms of natural disasters, including those of climate change. Then there’s foreign dependency and disruption of global supply chains for components and critical materials. For instance, every plant in every system has to have what are called step-up transformers. Most of these are manufactured overseas and are very large and very difficult to move. So you have the problem of foreign manufacture and the idea that the transport is very difficult.

Then you have cyber threats. Well, this is one of the newest ones, but then again, it isn’t. I’ve been talking about cyber-threats since the ’90s and people thought I was a little bit crazy. In fact. the Siting Council here in Connecticut would not even let me use the word until two members intervened to force that to take place.

Then there are combined or blended combinations of what I’ve just mentioned, all of the above. For instance, there might be a physical attack accompanied by a cyber-attack taking place at the same time. Last of all are what we call unintended consequences, for instance, adding complexity to an already tightly coupled, complex system, which is our electric grid. Something that takes place in a complex system is that if something happens on one end of the grid, in certain instances it can almost instantaneously have an impact on the other part of the grid, due to this complexity. So those are the threats that we potentially face on energy security for the electric grid.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Joel Gordes, how do distributed energy resources address those threats?

JOEL GORDES: Well, right now we have the centralized electric grid, and that’s part of the problem; everything is connected to everything else. And what we need to begin to start doing is decentralizing the electric grid, and that means very specific things, and I still harken back to the guru of decentralization, a fella named Amory Lovins, who was the cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute. And in 1982 he and his then-wife, L. Hunter Lovins, wrote a book called “Brittle Power,” and it was written for the Department of Defense, and then about a year later was released to the general public. This is what Amory and Hunter Lovins basically say, and I totally agree with this: that there should be many small units of supply and distribution; that they should be geographically disbursed; they should be inter-connected, with many units not dependent on just a few; they should be able to operate if they’re in isolated modes; there should be some storage to provide a buffer so failures will be gradual; short links should be used at the distribution level and employ qualities of user controllability.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is there any particular kind of energy that lends itself more than others to using distributed energy?

JOEL GORDES: Well, basically, there should be many forms of energy; you should have more than one source in a good micro-grid. You might have a large solar array; if you have wind capability, some wind. Battery storage is what you definitely should have and even fossil-fuel types of small generators to take up any slack when you don’t have the wind blowing or the sun isn’t shining. So it takes into account a number of different fuels so that you have that capability of running under any circumstance.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you see any progress in moving toward distributed energy?

JOEL GORDES: Connecticut has a limited program for what we call micro-grids, but it’s so limited and it’s so under-funded that they’re only doing over the past four years about seven projects or so. Hopefully they’re going to do more. The military, I think, is pointing the way, and what we’re learning from their experience can be adapted to the rest of the nation. Now, other states are also engaged to different levels. I don’t have a good fix on that, but I think some states may be far more ambitious than what’s happening here. That’s something to look at and hopefully start to make an impact. I’m afraid it’s going to take some sort of cyber-attack in conjunction with an ice storm or a blizzard to get people thinking, geez, maybe we really should be doing decentralization.

For more information, visit Environmental Energy and Security. Follow Joel Gordes on Twitter at @GordesJoel. 
This interview was previously broadcast on April 18, 2018.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary