Today, nearly half a million miles of high-voltage transmission lines crisscross the country, but the people planning the future of America's electric grid are thinking small. They say we should build microgrids — small, local systems that could connect and disconnect.
Advocates say the microgrid transformation of our electric infrastructure would make it more resilient to cyberattacks, the effects of nuclear weapons and climate change, and better able to handle electricity generated by renewable resources, such as wind and solar.
It turns out, it's Massachusetts scientists and military engineers on Cape Cod who are leading the way to the microgrid of the future.
Building A More Resilient System
Steve Pike, the CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, says most of the time we take electricity for granted.
"When folks go to flip on their lights, those lights better go on, or better go on 99.9 percent of the time," he says.
But sometimes, come hell or high water, the usually safe and reliable electric grid goes down.
That's what happened when Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York City in 2012. A documentary from NOVA, called "Inside the Megastorm," details the destruction as high voltage substations flooded and started exploding.
Saltwater and electricity are a dangerous mix. In order to prevent electrical fires, Con Ed[ison] makes a brutally tough call: The power company pulls the plug, plunging much of lower Manhattan, including Wall Street, into darkness.
Scientists say Sandy — the largest Atlantic hurricane in history — is the specter of storms to come, as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather.
Pike says the megastorm disaster focused the attention of electric grid operators and power generators.
"The hope is that, should a Hurricane Sandy strike again, and certainly one will, it's just a matter of time here in Boston, that our power system will be far more resilient and microgrids are a potential solution to that," he says.
A Back-To-The-Future Method
Microgrids are more resilient because they're islands of energy that can connect and adapt to changing conditions, and disconnect and operate independently during disasters.
Actually, they're a back-to-the-future method of powering a place.
At the start of the age of electricity, grids were small and generators local. Over time, regulators and companies cobbled together the micro systems and built the vast electric grid used today, where high voltage transmission lines carry electrons long distances from where they're generated.
But at a recent conference at MIT, scientists and engineers gathered to plan for a return to the old, decentralized system, using some very high-tech hardware.
"It's fundamentally changing how we operate our power system, which has been developed over the last hundred years plus to be a centralized system," says Erik Limpaecher, of the MIT Lincoln Lab. He's one of the engineers leading the effort. "Now we're talking about having all this intelligence and controls and power generation and smarts be distributed, which weren't necessarily designed to operate that way. So we need a new test bed capability in order to make that work."
The new digital test bed MIT is developing will set national standards for the control devices that will manage the complex microgrids, making sure power from large utilities meshes perfectly with that produced by local intermittent sources like wind, solar and backup batteries.
In the hallway at the MIT conference, reps from vendors hoping to sell microgrid control devices vie for attention. Jon Lesage is an application engineer with MATLAB. The talk is heavy-duty tech.
"What we have here today is a hardware in the loop setup that's modeling a peak shaving algorithm here on this industrial control system PLC, interfacing over ethernet IP to a real time computer that's basically running a simulation of an electrical grid," Lesage says.
Microgrid technology is nerdy but necessary, especially for national security.
This video from the Electric Infrastructure Security Council dramatizes what's called a "Black Sky Event" — a worst-case electric grid scenario: a terrorist cyberattack on a transmission line, or the zapping of unprotected electronics from an intense electromagnetic pulse produced by a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere.
Limpaecher says it's the Department of Defense that needs microgrids the most, because if the larger grid goes down, a microgrid can disconnect — or "island" — and run on its own power.
"[The Department of Defense] is particularly interested for energy resilience for its bases," Limpaecher says. "There are about 500 bases in the United States and the [Department of Defense] is more and more concerned about its reliance on the electric power system."
When Power Failure Is Not An Option
One of those military installations is Joint Base Cape Cod, where a new microgrid will be powered by a powerful wind turbine.
The 22,000-acre base is the largest consumer of electricity on the Cape. It buys it from Eversource, off the grid. But Maj. Shawn Doyle says power failure is not an option here, so with $6 million from a special Pentagon research and development fund, engineers are building a microgrid to make sure there's a sustainable way to provide nonstop electricity to the Air National Guard's 102nd Intelligence Wing.
"We have a 24/7 live mission where our analysts sit inside of our intel building and they are watching the live feeds that come off of UAVs — drones — around the world including U2s and things like that," Doyle explains. "So they need to be in constant contact, and sometimes they're actually talking to troops on the ground who are involved in operations, so they cannot afford the power to go down."
A giant battery will store electricity as a backup, and if that goes down there's a diesel generator. Joint Base Cape Cod will have the military's first renewable energy microgrid.
"The other way that we're different is that we're going to be creating the first in the federal system what we call a cyber secure connection to the outside world," Doyle says.
Doyle predicts microgrids will transform the nation's electric infrastructure.
"There may come a time when the whole idea of a coast-to-coast, interconnected grid is no longer relevant because you don't need it because you have enough smaller microgrids that kind of serve themselves," he says. "I don't need to be able to take power from Quebec, for instance."
'We're Inventing The Methods To Make It Work'
Of course, microgrids are also a threat. The technology will disrupt the way traditional mega grid utilities make money — sending them searching for new business models.
"I do think that the utilities in Massachusetts are some of the more progressive in the country. They have the vision," says Pike, of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. "I don't know that they know exactly how to get there. I don't think anybody does at this point."
But don't be shocked if one day in the not too distant future your home, your neighborhood, town or city is connected to a microgrid.
"There's no question it's going to work," Doyle says. "We don't know how yet, we're inventing the methods to make it work. But yes, it's going to work."
The new microgrid on Joint Base Cape Cod should be up and running by next year.
This segment aired on April 19, 2017.