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Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala

Zainab Calcuttawala is an American journalist based in Morocco. She completed her undergraduate coursework at the University of Texas at Austin (Hook’em) and reports on…

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Solar Mini-Grids Could Shield The U.S. From Terrorist Strikes


The diversification of energy sources that feed the American electric grid should be a national security priority to ensure a robust national grid system that can withstand natural disasters and terrorist attacks on U.S. infrastructure. But, according to a new paper by the Michigan Technological University (MTU), that’s not enough.

The experts said that building resilience to cascading blackouts, attacks from hostile foreign entities, and other grid-threatening events requires the wide-scale development of solar resources while creating independently functioning micro-grids that will retain their ability to produce power in case of a mass outage. And the American military concurs:

"The U.S. military is extremely dependent on electricity now; it's not people fighting with bayonets," says co-author Joshua Pearce, professor of electrical and computer engineering. "If we put the money into PV-powered microgrids, it would be making us objectively more secure and we get a return on our investment as after the initial investment in [photovoltaic electricity] the military would enjoy free solar electricity for the next 25 years."

A quick skim of policy papers from a range of think tanks shows that concern regarding the security of the electric grid plagues lawmakers on both sides of the isle. The Heritage Foundation identified the system’s weakest point—transmission systems—in a 2014 report. The year before, a sniper attacked a power substation adjacent to San Jose, California, causing the site to be out of commission for roughly one month.

Natural disasters alone cost consumers $18-$33 billion in power outages and infrastructure carnage, and those tend to be limited in size and scope depending on the size of the tornado, hurricane, or earthquake. Larger attacks stemming from malice against American culture or foreign policy could cause worse damage. Related: Who Will Lead The Transportation Transformation?

An important component of cybersecurity in large electronic systems requires decentralization. Experts consider the American elections to be extremely resilient against hackers aiming to change votes in favor of their preferred candidates because of the sheer number of entities that would have to be attacked to produce results. Voting machines in the U.S. are not connected to the internet, and votes themselves are not recorded in a grand national repository where they could be manipulated in one fell swoop.

Instead, individual voting centers report to counties, which reports to state authorities, determine the winner of the state for the presidential race. State and local elections use a similar procedure to count poll outcomes. Decentralization is key.

The American grid also operates via three separate interconnections. Any one portion of the grid can temporarily support another in case of a modest blackout, but the three-legged system has many struggles. New mini-grids, propped up by locally installed solar panels, have begun popping up in New York City and other liberal hotspots. In the event of a widespread outage, these oases will be able to continue power generation. Related: U.S. Shale Spending Dwarfs Competition: Grows 10 Times Faster

The MTU paper designed a technical and economic feasibility plan to power the entirety of the United States with solar power on a hybrid micro-grid with the capability to store power to ensure against larger outages. The researchers said they would hire the same companies that provide a similar service for American military bases—Lockheed Martin, Bechtel, and General Electric.

“Given the results, the challenge to meet grid resiliency with microgrid deployment is feasible because the resources to install these systems already exist domestically,” the report reads. A note by Dr. Chelsea Schelly, an associate professor of Sociology at MTU, added that the military’s renewable energy policy could be used as a guide for state or national policies of the same kind.

"If we recognize that this capacity already exists, then we can start thinking about PV as a security measure by integrating micro-grids - and then creating local resilience based on military technologies,” the professor said.

This process would protect against cyberattacks such as the those levied against Ukraine in December 2016. Russian attackers were suspected to be the perpetrators, but that’s just a suspicion. The identity of the aggressors, who took down a fifth of Kiev’s energy consumption, is, frankly, irrelevant. Will it really matter WHO attacked the U.S. when a third of the country is suddenly in the dark, largely unable to work or live? Proactivity in decentralizing the grid, as several European countries have already done, would put the U.S. in a non-negotiable position of strength.

By Zainab Calcuttawala for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Oilracle on May 14 2017 said:
    -- ...the military would enjoy free solar electricity for the next 25 years --

    then, this military will demand from the enemies to fight only in summer months between 10 AM and 4 PM!!!
  • Lee James on May 14 2017 said:
    Our country needs to think more strategically; more proactively in terms of threat management -- like this article suggests.

    Locally sourced power from wind and solar is one avenue. Produce energy locally.

    Another area of thinking strategically is for us and the world to take a hard look at where fossil fuels come from. Who can deny that a lot of today's oil and gas comes from countries like Russia and Iran? These countries weaponize fuel export and turn fossil fuel sales revenue directly into weapons. If fossil fuel and weapons are the main products of these countries, what's wrong with this picture?

    Buy energy from countries that do good things with the revenue, including for their own people.
  • Josh Gregner on May 15 2017 said:
    Micro & Mini Grids make total sense for the military. That's an economic question in "safe" / "developed" places and an absolute necessity out in the rough places.

    No matter what you think about battery costs, they are way cheaper than getting fuel into places like Afghanistan. Remember the headlines from 2011 how the military is spending billions of USD on AC alone and how hundreds of soldiers die in attacks on fuel supply convoys?


    So to me the military using solar + batteries to ensure their bases are safe and powered-up is an absolute no brainer. No soldier deserves to die. Especially not while working on ACing a tent for some fatcat in the desert.
  • Sarah Smith on May 15 2017 said:
    @oilracle -- Solar powered microgrids have storage and a generator so they work 24-7 all year round -- the solar just takes up the heavy lifting so bases are not as reliant on fuel. Read the whole paper https://www.academia.edu/32808527/U.S._strategic_solar_photovoltaic-powered_microgrid_deployment_for_enhanced_national_security
  • Bill Simpson on May 15 2017 said:
    It makes me wonder how much it would cost to connect the major power plants and dams using a separate system of wires. It isn't like the power companies don't have rights of way to run some wires. I would gladly pay a few more dollars a month to get them off the Internet, so that no enemy could shut down the grid. Once the system was complete, it wouldn't cost much to maintain it.
    Anyone who says it would be impossible, needs to look at the cable TV system. They ran wires to nearly every home in the country. Compared to that, connecting a few thousand power plants should be simple, even if you had to build three separate systems for redundancy.
  • Off the Grid on November 19 2017 said:
    In response to Bill Simpson regarding the cable company connecting "nearly" every home in the country. The cable tv companies have done no such thing. There is a universal service charge on your telephone bill for a reason, because the legacy telephone company in your area is considered a carrier of last resort which is funded through this charge in order to run telephone lines to every home. No cable tv company, satellite provider, etc, is considered a carrier of last resort, AND furthermore, maintenance of communications lines regardless of whether they are copper, coax, or fiber is a full time enterprise which has an extraordinary reoccurring cost associated with it. The power companies are already using frequencies on top of their power lines to communicate through and are not running additional wiring. The point of the article was focusing in on diversification of fuels and grid isolation.

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