Microgrids and the age of energy terrorism
The best response to a worrying new trend in political violence is a more resilient grid with distributed power generation
Last December, two electrical substations in Moore County, North Carolina, were damaged by gunfire from a high powered rifle in a deliberate attack that left 45,000 homes and businesses without power for several days. It was followed by similar attacks to multiple substations in Washington state on Christmas Day that affected 14,000 people. And just last week North Carolina had another substation shot at, only this time a power outage was avoided.
The attacks come on the back of a growing trend of deliberate attempts to damage the power grid, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Investigations are ongoing and motivations not yet clear, but the FBI is warning of a neo-Nazi plot to take down the grid so as to hasten the demise of the federal government. It is in a way reassuring to learn that the people behind this are delusional enough to believe that firing a few shots at a transformer could bring down the government of the United States. But it is disturbing that the criminals are unaware of (or don’t care about) the real damage they inflict on the communities they target, as detailed in this thread:
Meanwhile in Brazil, where a credible attempt at an actual coup d’etat was recently unveiled, a similar trend of attacks on critical infrastructure is taking hold. In the ten days following January 8th 2023 (dubbed “Brazil’s January 6th”) there have been 16 attacks to transmission towers across the country, with 4 of them downed, very likely a result of political violence by wounded extremists trying to sow chaos and disrupt daily life. There are now discussions in the Brazilian judicial system about whether the attacks could be considered acts of domestic terrorism.
I don’t pretend to know how to fix the polarized societies we are living in, but to the extent that political instability will bring more risks to our energy infrastructure, it does lead me to think about how we can better protect the grid from disruptions, both by humans as well as natural causes.
The power grid is a huge and complex network with countless nodes of critical infrastructure. Some call it “the largest machine in the world” because it physically connects massive power plants to all the regions to where electricity needs to go, to distribution substations that step down and step up voltage, to all the city streets, all the way down to each and every house and each and every power socket in our homes. It will never be possible to protect all the critical parts of that immense machine, so the grid will remain vulnerable to deliberate attacks and natural disasters. The answer to ensure more protection is to build resilience into the grid itself so that it can continue to provide power even when parts of it are down.
Enter microgrids: small-scale local energy grids that have their own means of generating power and can operate independently if needed. A microgrid can power anywhere from a single building to a small region of a state or country. In the words of the Department of Energy:
Microgrids are localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional grid to operate autonomously. Because they are able to operate while the main grid is down, microgrids can strengthen grid resilience and help mitigate grid disturbances as well as function as a grid resource for faster system response and recovery.
While microgrids don’t necessarily have to run on clean power, they are becoming more common precisely due to the modular nature of renewables. Many traditional microgrids still rely on natural gas plants and diesel backup generators, however it is becoming easier and cheaper to supplement local power with solar and wind. Grid-scale batteries, geothermal, and even fuel cell power are all emerging technologies already being rolled out to replace fossil fuels while retaining microgrid autonomy. In the coming years and decades, I am optimistic that small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) will enable even more independent local grids that run on 100% clean power.
Microgrids require careful design and often face legal and regulatory obstacles. But there are other ways to gain resilience. The deployment of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, behind-the-meter battery backups and even electric cars with vehicle-to-home or vehicle-to-grid capability can all help make infrastructure more robust, even where microgrids don’t exist.
In a world powered by a more distributed grid where most buildings have the ability to generate and store much of their own energy needs, we will face a lot less disruption if someone decides to unload assault weapons on a substation, or knock down a transmission tower. A positive side effect of the clean energy transition will be infrastructure that is less vulnerable to attacks, which in turn should make these irresponsible acts not just criminal, but also pointless to carry out if the disruption they cause becomes increasingly insignificant.
Follow the microgrid rabbit hole
Despite my focus here on regions of the world with large scale energy infrastructure, I find that a more exciting promise of microgrids is in democratizing electricity access to benefit the almost one billion people (gasp!) who today still live without reliable access to it. Microgrids are key to solving energy poverty.
Nithio is a company focused on enabling solar + battery microgrid deployments to rural parts of Africa. Here’s an interview with the CEO:
Closer to home, it is important to ensure that microgrids themselves are built to withstand failures. Studies have been done on building highly resilient microgrids.
Another interesting tangent to this whole discussion is the concept of a Virtual Power Plant (VPP), where multiple distributed energy resources are aggregated and managed through software as a single ‘power plant’. Using a VPP to power a microgrid can make it more resilient, even though VPPs are usually thought of as separate from microgrids. This article has a good overview.
And this short video explains microgrids with stop-motion animations. I fear political violence, the people at Vox fear squirrels.
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