RMI hopes blackout will be a wake-up call | AspenTimes.com

RMI hopes blackout will be a wake-up call

Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute fear U.S. policy makers will remain in the dark about energy issues despite the nation’s largest blackout earlier this month.

Old Snowmass-based RMI, one of the world’s leading energy think tanks, believes the blackout that affected 50 million people in the United States Aug. 14 should be a wake-up call for the country to fundamentally change how it designs its electricity production and delivery system.

Changes are needed to make the electrical grid more reliable and less vulnerable to problems such as too much demand, natural disasters or terrorism, said Joel Swisher, an energy researcher in RMI’s Boulder office.

“The grid is about as reliable as it’s going to get,” said Swisher. Therefore, adding to that grid to meet growing demand isn’t a good long-term solution, RMI contends. The core problems will still exist – it’s a centralized system with relatively few power sources. Those sources are interconnected, so a major problem in one place can trigger problems with the broader system.

That’s what happened earlier this month when millions were left without electricity in New York and other parts of the East and Midwest.

A network of transmission lines and power plants in northern Ohio failed, leading to a cascade of events that resulted in the nation’s largest blackout, according to The New York Times. Federal investigators are doing a thorough study of what exactly happened.

President Bush is using the event to push an energy policy he first proposed during his 2000 campaign. He wants the current system modernized and expanded, according to New York Times stories. Congress has failed to act on that aspect of his energy policy because it has been tied to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, something environmentalists and Democrats have vehemently opposed.

Swisher and his colleagues at RMI contend that instead of adding to a vulnerable system, which will continue to face the same problems it faces today, the country should invest in alternative power sources like fuel cells, combined heat and power, solar panels and micro-turbines. They can provide power at lower cost and greater reliability than the centralized power grid, according to a press release issued by RMI when the blackout struck.

Those alternative sources must be developed close to where they are needed, and they should be developed in a way that they can be isolated from the grid when necessary, RMI said.

The switch cannot be made overnight, but if it starts now, the country will be in better shape to meet increasing electricity demands in the future, according to Swisher.

“The solution is a vision, not something you would get to overnight,” he said.

Kyle Datta, managing director of RMI’s consulting practice, compared our current grid to a centralized computer mainframe with limited access points. The World Wide Web, on the other hand, distributes computing power, and by its dispersed nature means information is at much less risk, he said.

“The Web is a very good model of what we should be doing with electricity, Datta said. “The grid should exist, but it should complement electricity storing and generating devices on our office buildings, our homes, roofs, in our basements, and ultimately in our fuel-cell driven automobiles. Putting all our eggs in one basket is a predictable catastrophe waiting to happen.”

RMI officials believe this is a perfect time for the country to renew debate about the best solutions to the problem of a centralized and vulnerable power industry. RMI co-founder Amory Lovins warned about the weakness of the grid 21 years ago in a book called “Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security.” That information is available on the Internet at http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/art7095.php.

In his book, Lovins described the electrical grid as a disaster waiting to happen. “The United States has for decades been undermining the foundations of its own strength,” he wrote. “It has gradually built up an energy system prone to sudden massive failures with catastrophic consequences.”

Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, RMI warned that the nation’s energy supply was a ripe target because it is so centralized and difficult to protect. “It’s 20 years old, but Brittle Power is still the bible on this stuff,” said Swisher.

He said it is a safe bet that terrorist organizations attentively studied the results of this month’s blackout. “Unless they’re total idiots they were thinking of it anyway,” he said.

RMI will use the blackout to try to renew interest in alternative methods of meeting the country’s electricity needs. Whether they can get any decision makers to listen remains to be seen, Swisher acknowledged.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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