Energy FUD and our Smart Grid Future

Cyber terrorism is the nightmare scenario for the energy industry. Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) are the weapons of choice.  In the ‘good old days’ we worried about was hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and wildfires taking down transmission lines.  Because transmission was always more difficult to site, permit and build due to NIMBY and the eternally long process of environmental and regulatory review.  We compensated for that uncertainty by building more power generation, closer to load centers.

In addition, because the power grid was not designed from the top down but rather represented the slow process of interconnecting utilities from the bottom up first for back up, then for power sales of excess generation, the power grid has always been fragmented.  Even today there is no national grid but rather four large regional power grids that connect most of North America.

Reliability has also been the holy grail of the power system and the natural gas pipeline system.  Utilities and energy suppliers were expected to keep the lights on and the gas flowing.

Along the way the process of approving interstate natural gas pipelines changed shifting responsibility for permitting, siting and approval to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  Maybe it was because gas pipelines were buried underground but there was much less public opposition to their construction.  And when there was FERC listened politely to the complaints and worries and then approved the projects trying to reasonably mitigate the most serious problems.

Electric transmission remained a state by state regulated function and that made all the difference—mostly for the worse.  The NIMBY issues got more vocal, the tortured process for transmission construction was interminable and the costs were outrageous. States liked it that way because it helped them retain their regulatory jurisdiction and kept utilities on a short leash.

Renewable energy, the desire for greenhouse gas emissions reduction and the political correctness of smart grid combined to change the dynamics.  Wind resources in West Texas or Iowa, solar energy intensity in the Southwest or geothermal in Nevada and California were stranded without the transmission to get them to load centers.

Smart grid was designed to improve power grid efficiency and security by expanding the scope and scale of the grid to make power electronics, grid automation, demand response and other benefits possible.  But unifying the grid also makes it more vulnerable to resource inadequacy and terrorist attacks.

Energy Learning Machines

So today while we don’t hear the term energy fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) that is what NERC, FERC and energy industry trade groups, regulators and utilities executives worry about most.

That is why we should pay more attention to the risk potential of things like Stuxnet and now Flame that appear to be doing their dastardly deeds on Iranian nuclear facilities.  Those same threats could be just as easily worming their way through any of North America’s power grids.  Protecting against that requires both thinking big and thinking small.   Thinking big is exactly the kind of important work that NERC is doing to establish standards and implement security protocols to secure the grid with preventive measures and procedural security consistently executed by every utility and regional transmission organization.

Predictive Energy Analytics

Future proofing the grid also requires thinking small about microgrids and a modular framework for dynamically compartmentalizing the grid to prevent problems from cascading out of control and developing the workarounds essential to restore stability quickly.  Visual network analysis, artificial market simulation, scenario analytics, and dynamic grid automation is the way of the future.  It will require new tools and old concepts of self-sufficiency, reliability, resource adequacy and a mix of resources to allow each modular sector of the power grid to fend for itself, heal itself, secure itself, and feed itself in emergencies.

A power grid future that rejects fossil fuels and undermines baseload generation that prevents new nuclear or new hydro from being built consigns itself to the most volatile fuels, the most vulnerable transmission congestion points and the longest wait to get the light back on.  Solar energy especially rooftop solar in load centers offers the only real potential for microgrid modularity because its small scale allows the resource to be sited quickly and everywhere.  But current solar technology is woefully inefficient.

Energy FUD today is about a lot more than just cyber terrorism.  It also is made possible by policies that undermine fuel diversity, balanced resource mix between reliable, low cost baseload, low cost peaking resources, and load-following natural gas fired resources in between to assure system reliability.  Energy FUD is defeated by balance, diversity, modularity and flexibility.  That should be both our strategic as well as operational security priority.