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What Hurricane Sandy could teach us about a more distributed microgrid

My colleague Katie Fehrenbacher takes a look at the power outages resulting from Hurricane Sandy, and analyzes the fundamental nature of today’s electricity grid, which is centralized. Centralizing a power grid gives you a lot of basic control day to day until you have an outage, which can cripple the entire system because every aspect of the grid is dependent on another part.

Looking at how DARPA designed the internet to be self-healing and invulnerable to cyberattack, Fehrenbacher asks if we could one day have a more distributed electrical grid. Our internet infrastructure along with our cellular networks are fairly distributed, which means that traffic can be rerouted in emergency and that the fundamental resource is moveable. In fact the concern for data center operators is increasingly grid outages, not just servers going down.

Certainly microgrids will have a role to play here, and clean energy is at the heart of distributed power generation as fuel cells, rooftop solar, and geothermal have all demonstrated. Utilities are not, by nature, going to try to build this infrastructure because it moves generation away from them and toward the user, cannibalizing their business (some forward looking utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric are experimenting with microgrids to serve key communities with lots of distributed power already). The solution will have to involved distributed power getting so cheap and increasingly reliable that consumers decide to do it themselves. And if we further deregulate, splitting generation from distribution we might take away an incentive from vertically integrated utilities to want to control all the generation themselves.