Power-Grid Independence Means Better Homeland Security

Whit Allen | Jan 14, 2003

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Federal, state, and Canadian authorities recently completed the "Blue Cascades" project, a simulated terrorist attack on the Pacific Northwest's power grid. The study, which included companies such as Boeing, Pacific Gas & Electric, Verizon and Qwest, showed that such an attack, if successful, could wreak havoc on the nation's economy, shutting down power and productivity in a domino effect that would last weeks. The situation is exacerbated by the almost total interdependence of each of the three U.S. grid systems: East, West and Texas.

And the threat isn't simply academic. U.S. occupation forces in Afghanistan discovered Al Qaeda documentation about the facility that controls power distribution for the eastern U.S., fueling fears that an attack on the power grid may one day become a reality. Moreover, anyone can go on the Internet, and for less than $100, buy a map of the electrical grid in this country, according to Joel Slaughter, manager of corporate security for American Electric Power.

One possible remedy to these threats? Distributed generation, or "DG," which eliminates reliance on the utility grid by locating power systems directly at a government user's premises.

DG allows organizations to disconnect from the highly vulnerable electricity grid and create their own power directly at the point-of-use. If key facilities, especially government operations and infrastructure businesses like telecommunications centers, circumvent the grid, they can ensure service to the public during acts of sabotage, not to mention accidents and inadvertent power failures.

Why Distributed Generation?
DG offers a host of several national security benefits that would otherwise be jeopardized by a reliance on grid-based power.

For instance, DG eliminates dependency on the conventional power transmission and distribution system, which utilizes an extremely limited number of power delivery paths to move electricity from central generating plants to numerous end users. With a heavy dependence on just these few critical links and nodes, the grid is vulnerable to widespread failure, even if the power plants themselves are not directly attacked.

DG also places power at the point of use; it's a short-wire solution. The conventional electricity grid, in contrast, utilizes hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines and numerous substations - all open to attack at any point.

In addition, multiple, small systems are less attractive target for saboteurs seeking to quickly and dramatically disable the nation's day-to-day operations.

But Isn't Back-Up Power Enough To Protect Major Electricity Users? While large businesses have historically installed power conditioning and back-up power solutions to try and insulate themselves from the repercussions of grid failure, they really haven't enhanced their ability to stay up and running in the event of terrorist sabotage. This is because the technologies that they rely on were actually formulated in the days of punch cards and batch processing. But the "7 x 24 x forever capabilities" of today's digital equipment far surpass the ability of these devices to continuously supply computer-grade power for any length of time.

Current research and testing reveals that back-up power devices (the core of any back-up infrastructure) frequently fail. According to a risk analysis study conducted by MTechnology Inc., even robust back-up systems incorporating multiple devices (e.g., dual power feeds from the electricity grid, batteries, diesel generators, UPS devices, etc.) run a 67 percent chance of failure over their lifetimes. And when they do fail, it can take as much as sixteen hours or more to get the host facility up and running again.

Of equal significance, conventional "utility grid plus back-up" systems aren't designed to operate through long power utility outages. This is because even the latest technologies are meant to run for only a relatively short period of time - a few days at most. A long-duration, September 11th-type event is simply beyond most businesses' ability to cope, making the concept of "back-up" merely ephemeral.

Only DG systems can be engineered to generate long-term, high-availability, computer grade electricity. Through an array of carefully configured generators - including gas-reciprocating engines, fuel cells and turbines - linked with rotary UPS systems and flywheels, uptime can be raised to the much sought after six nines (99.9999 percent) availability level. Dual fuel engines can be used and ample fuel stored onsite to protect against pipeline and other transportation interruptions.

The First National Bank of Omaha (the nation's largest privately owned bank and seventh largest credit card transaction processor) installed such a system in 1999 as the primary critical power source for its new 200,000-square foot Technology Center.

The system in Omaha generates 100 percent of the "critical load" electricity for the bank's computers and storage devices, which are used to process millions of credit card and banking transactions every day. The system has been running without interruption for more than three years and has provided electricity through numerous grid outages and other utility problems.

DG Offers Additional End User Benefits
Enhanced security is not the only benefit of DG. Such systems are also far easier to implement than new central generation plants - making DG an ideal solution for the numerous areas plagued by power shortages. Many DG applications can be sited under existing state and federal air emission regulations in far less time than central power plants. The Energy Competition Strategy Report wrote in its June 2001 newsletter that "regulators, by 9 to 1, favor Distributed Generation in their jurisdictions."

Modern DG systems are also scalable so that they can grow along with power needs and are far friendlier to the environment than large central power plants. Further, DG plants can be made to look just like the buildings they serve or can be fitted inside an existing facility. This means that residential communities are far less likely to oppose DG than they would the construction of new commercial plants or transmission lines.

Another benefit of DG systems is that they can be financed and owned directly by end-users, placing no additional burden on utility ratepayers. Utilities can even partner with businesses to install DG systems as part of their own growth strategy. Utilities would benefit from DG since it eliminates the need to add central generating capacity and, even more importantly, improves the overall reliability of the entire transmission and distribution system. DG-based systems can also be installed quickly, allowing for an immediate energy fix while utility-level restructuring is planned and implemented.

A final benefit of DG is that many onsite generation systems offer combined heat and power (known to energy insiders as CHP). CHP uses the heat normally lost during power generation to provide heating, air conditioning, steam, and hot and cooled water for industrial processes. Thus, DG is a clean and reliable alternative to conventional electricity generation; it often means both financial savings and increased energy efficiency for commercial and manufacturing facilities.

The Time Is Now
Even before the tragic of events September 11th, DG was beginning to make impressive in roads as an energy solution. In this new age of ubiquitous terrorist threat, not to mention widespread power shortages and a strained transmission and distribution system, the course of action seems clear: Build Even More DG! After all, we can't cure 21st century power woes with 20th century solutions.

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Comments

This article addresses the hidden problem of our current grid system. Mr. Allen makes a strong case for the addition of DG to major installations. A lot of major end users may not immediately recognize the need for stand alone power (or island mode) systems. They should reflect on the rolling blackouts that took place in California two summers ago. While the power outages were relatively short in nature, they had a severe effect on the economy of the state. With the loss of a portion of the power grid, the downtime could be much longer and the effect could be even worse.

A very timely article.