Monday, May 21, 2018
23 January, 2018
Electricity is the most versatile form of energy produced by the industrial revolution, but our power infrastructure of centralized production and grid distribution has not changed in over 140 years. Electricity is produced as needed, so the system must be built to meet peak demand, and is otherwise underutilized. Storing utility scale power has been limited to pump storage, where water is pumped to an elevated lake using nonpeak power, and runs downhill through generators as needed.
New battery developments allow storage to be scaled to specific needs and locations, complementing renewable power, which produces when wind or sun are present, rather than as power is needed. However, any system with centralized power production and grid distribution is vulnerable to outage, from natural as well as man-made causes. It has been four months since the winds of hurricane Maria destroyed the power system on Puerto Rico, and half the country is still without power. Many countries have intermittent power due to failed economics systems or war.
In September, 1859, the Earth experienced the largest solar flare on record, the Carrington Event. This mass of highly charged particles caused Aurora Borealis as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. The event caused little damage at that time, but would be devastating today, because induced high currents in the grid system would destroy hundreds of major transformers critical to the system. These custom transformers cost as much as $7M each, and require years to fabricate. Electrical outages would be widespread and prolonged, with rural areas last on the list of priorities.
Solar flares can happen any time, but can be detected in time to shut down the grid, as has been suggested for high winds. This would require investment in solar monitoring, and the shutdown could affect much of the planet.
Another natural hazard to the grid, particularly in California, is earthquakes. In 1971, the Sylmar quake in southern California, destroyed the newly opened California Intertie, a high voltage DC line carrying hydro power from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles. In Ukiah, the Maacama Fault forms the eastern edge of the valley, an extension of the Rodgers and Hayward Faults further to the south. These run parallel to the San Andreas Fault, and also relieve the stress of plate motion in this part of the continent. The Hayward last moved in 1868, and is "due" for another shock any time, based on historical averages. This fault system produces smaller events than the San Andreas (magnitude 6.8 vs. 7.9), but we live closer to the fault line, so the effect would be amplified. It is likely that such an earthquake would damage the local grid system.
Ukiah gets most of its power from the geysers in Sonoma county. The generators are near the fault line and could be damage. Tectonic shifts could change the distribution of heat for the geyser field, requiring new wells to be drilled. There is no way to predict earthquakes, and no way to protect the system against disruption. In such an event, less densely populated areas such as ours would not be top priority for repairs.
Man-made outages could occur due to a nuclear attack generated electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which would cause all computer electronics to short out, and induce destructive currents in the gird.
A new vulnerability is the threat of cyber-weapons, hostile software inserted into the grid system to destroy equipment. In 2010, the Stuxnet virus infected computer systems worldwide. It was apparently developed by the US and Israel to destroy centrifuges in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility, but the design allowed it to spread everywhere. This sophisticated cyber-weapon is now available for other bad actors to use. For more information, see "Zero Days", a documentary that can be streamed on Hulu.
The vulnerabilities of centralized production and grid distribution could be reduced by increasing local production and storage, which are currently limited in the county. We could start by addressing emergency communication needs for fire and police, to support operations completely independent of grid power. We could expand to cover vital services for the entire community, including fuel, food, hospitals, and cell towers.
I have already talked about the advantage of distributed production and storage at the household level for fire resilience. The beauty of investing in local production and storage for the community is that these systems are able to provide power under normal situations, and are not disrupted in an emergency. The added bonus is that we move our community toward lower carbon emissions and greater self-reliance, improving our chances of even having a future.