With Increasingly Destructive Storms, Government & Utilities Must Make Electric Grid More Resilient

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

Hurricane Isaias roared through the Caribbean and up the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., wreaking familiar destruction. More than 3 million homes and businesses lost power. Thousands were still without electricity a week after the storm, which brought down thousands of trees, utility wires and poles. One week later, a derecho, or fast-moving violent windstorm tore through the Midwest, leaving another one million utility customers without power.

After two destructive storms within a few months of each other in 2011, then Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy appointed a panel to investigate the breakdown of the system that left some residents spending two weeks in the dark. The panel’s main recommendation was to authorize the state’s two investor-owned utilities permission to cut down the trees surrounding their energy transmission infrastructure in order to harden the system.

Almost a decade later, yet another storm has had the same destructive impact. Now, in addition to the trees that were felled by Isaias’ fury, thousands more are likely to be cut down in another effort to “harden the infrastructure.” Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Joel Gordes, a Connecticut-based energy and environmental security strategist who has long advocated energy microgrids and other methods — not to harden infrastructure, but to make it more resilient.

JOEL GORDES: Right now, we have what is called a centralized grid, and that means you have a bunch of fairly large generators that are placed in certain positions and those supply your power. The problem with this is that you’re relying on transmission lines and distribution lines; those are two different types of lines. And if there’s trees and stuff that are fragile, they can come down and disrupt, as we saw recently. The other option is to decentralize the grid, meaning you have a bunch of small generators that are much closer to the point of use, and you have them set up such that if one goes out maybe another can carry the load for it, and such. It’s a neater way of doing it rather than having all the large transmission lines and being dependent on just a very few plants. And the plants themselves sometimes have problems, or like the nuclear plants go down for refueling on a periodic basis that’s known. But during horrendous storms, this is what we have to put up with, these long-term outages.

And the two storms in 2011, we had a very lengthy investigation of it, that, well, had a number of people on this board that they put together to investigate it. And that’s all well and good, but the main problem as I look at it, is they just did the two storms. And what we need to be thinking about is an all-hazards approach. Let’s say you can go ahead and do something for the falling trees, which could be pretty drastic.

MELINDA TUHUS: You mean undergrounding the wires?

JOEL GORDES: I would say when you’re putting in some of these new generation things, putting them underground is an added bonus and looking at ways of protecting your trees should be part of the process. Now, whether you can do it successfully or not, I couldn’t say right now.

But right now there is this willy nilly thing of cutting down all the trees, and you’re going to find this — what shall we call it, “mindset” — after this, and you’re going to see tremendous tree cutting, just as we have seen after the two storms in 2011.

MELINDA TUHUS: What are some of the other hazards you think we need to guard against, Joel Gordes?

JOEL GORDES: It still leaves it open to about five other different hazards. For instance, we are in the age when we are so totally dependent on cyber-types of devices, and we need to start looking much more at the cyber threats that are out there from internal and external sources. And that can be a country, it can be a group that is disenchanted with us, anything.

And the other thing, too, I always say, having a military background, the real good thing is during the middle of a storm and you’re coming out of it, go ahead and do a cyber attack on it. So, that’s what’s called a blended combination of threats that can take over. So, you have not just the storms.

And by the way, one of my real pet peeves is people talk about “hardening the grid.” We tried hardening after 2011 when we had similar outages. Where are we? You don’t want hardening; hardening connotes brittle. Brittle connotes fragile. What we want is a term called “anti-fragile.” There’s a whole book written about it called Anti-Fragile by Naseem Talib. It’s really good. And what we want is resilience; we do not want hardening. It’s a bad word; it should be expunged from our energy vocabulary.

For more information on addressing the multiple threats to our current energy grid, visit Energy Security Solutions at energysecuritysol.com.

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