Policy Studies Energy and Environment

How microgrids could help protect Texas

Reliable electricity is vital to civilization. By harnessing the power of electricity, countries like the United States have achieved historically unprecedented levels of prosperity and human advancement. Growth in electricity consumption and economic growth traditionally have gone hand in hand. While increased energy efficiency has blunted that relationship somewhat in recent years, there’s no question that ready access to electricity is a foundation for modern society.

But the electrical grid’s critical role in the economy also serves as a source of vulnerability. Should the grid fail – whether due to deliberate attack, an accident or a natural event – the results could be catastrophic. Without electricity, simple everyday tasks such as pumping gas, withdrawing money from a bank account or talking with a loved one in another state would become difficult, if not practically impossible.

Even isolated and temporary loss of electricity can be economically damaging and life-threatening. These dangers rise exponentially as the duration and geographic range of the power loss expands.

Virtually every sector of the U.S. economy relies on electricity. As the U.S. EMP Commission noted in 2004:

All of the critical functions of US society and related infrastructures—electric power, telecommunications, energy, financial, transportation, emergency services, water, food, etc.—have electronic devices embedded in most aspects of their systems, often providing critical controls.

Each of these sectors relies not only on electricity, but on each other. For example, a functioning food supply depends on functioning transportation; both, in turn, depend in the long term on a functioning financial system, which relies on functioning telecommunications, and so forth. Failures in any one sector are likely to compound failures in the others, which in turn become vastly more destructive the longer electricity remains inaccessible.

The current grid also relies heavily on key pieces of infrastructure that are difficult to repair or replace. For example, bulk transmission of electricity relies on large power transformers, which weigh between 200,000 and 800,000 pounds and must be custom-designed and built. Replacing a large power transformer is a daunting task during ordinary times, and could prove all-but-impossible if other systems were likewise impaired.

The consequences of an extended disruption of the electrical grid are almost too frightening to contemplate. Even relatively minor disruptions could have serious economic and security consequences. Given the stakes, it’s imperative the State of Texas take reasonable measures to increase the resilience of its electrical grid. Even low-probability scenarios – some of which might seem far-fetched at first glance – must be taken seriously and guarded against to the extent practicable.

This paper reviews a number of emerging threats to a functioning electrical grid. It also highlights one way to protect against these threats: increased use of distributed generation. A decentralized grid offers protection by reducing the likelihood that failure of any particular central point or installation would bring down the entire system.

Photo by Titima Ongkantong / Shutterstock.com

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