While some claim that preventing another widespread blackout simply requires greater investment in the existing and antiquated energy system developed early in the last century, the real solution to our energy problems will require the United States to move on to the next stage of energy development - a cleaner, more efficient and more decentralized system.
The national policies that would achieve this transition will help ensure reliable, clean power distribution without interruption throughout the United States. Not only will such policies solve our electricity problems, they can help the country achieve a number of other priorities: reducing air pollutants that cause global warming and respiratory diseases; reducing our demand for and, thereby, the price of natural gas; and saving consumers money.1 Shifting to greater reliance on energy efficient and renewable energy technologies, and facilitating development of distributed generation (DG) capacity could dramatically increase the reliability of our electrical delivery systems, making Americans less vulnerable to blackouts like the one that recently struck the Northeast.
What is the problem we are trying to solve?
The antiquated energy system currently used is based on an energy grid with large capacity, centralized power plants sited far from the consumers that need them. There are two inherent problems with this system:
1) the large plants that run the existing system are extremely inefficient - wasting up to 70 percent of fuel energy and causing significant levels of damaging pollution, and
2) a problem in any portion of the massive generation, transmission and distribution chain can leave customers in a wide geographic area without power. With persistent air pollution problems causing significant harm to the environment and public health and access to uninterrupted power resources an essential element of modern life, these flaws are unacceptable. The following points illustrate why increased investments in our current energy system will not solve these problems and why we must ensure that clean energy is a central part of the solution.
Investing in the status quo may make the United States MORE VULNERABLE, NOT LESS!
1) A system which relies on a few, large, exposed generation facilities and an extensive transmission system is highly vulnerable to attack, accident and natural disaster. And problems anywhere along the chain can affect a large number of customers in an unrelated area.
2) Grid improvement is expensive - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that keeping up with expected growth in demand through 2020 will cost as much as $450 billion if we invest in the traditional infrastructure route2
3) Efficiency of the current system is extremely low. Centralized fossil fuel plants waste about 50 percent to 70 percent of fuel energy by using inefficient generation technologies, losing heat energy that is produced when electricity is generated, and losing power through transmission and distribution systems - necessitating greater fuel inputs and causing more pollution.
Because generation is added in large blocks, companies must rely on long-term needs forecasts, rather than adapting growth as demand requires. The smaller size of DG units allows them to be added to meet demand, preventing unnecessary investment in excessive generation capacity.
Transmission across long distances requires potentially contentious rights of way through farms, communities, rural areas, wildlife habitat and cities.
Clean energy holds the solution for long-term safety and reliability
1. Attacks on renewable energy resources, if they do occur, will not result in the devastating impacts that could occur if nuclear plants, large centralized fossil fuel plants, and pipelines are targeted - as they do not burn volatile fuels or produce radioactive fallout.
2. While electricity generated from DG units such as fuel cells, microturbines and solar panels cost more than currently available grid power, producing power locally can avoid costs of upgrading transmission and distribution networks. These avoided costs can tip economics in favor of DG.4
3. Other countries are miles ahead of the United States in utilizing DG and renewable energy resources. Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland each produce more than 40 percent of their current generation from DG, and use less primary energy per $1000 of gross domestic product than the United States.
Who had power during the blackout?
While most in the Northeast were forced to suffer through the blackout and make due with antique solutions like candles and liquid fuel burning lanterns, some who have already invested in DG units were unaffected. Fuel cells provided uninterrupted power to the police station in Central Park and the Conde Nast building at Four Times Square. In addition, marine life at the New York Aquarium was kept at safe temperatures thanks to their on-site fuel cell.