In early 1981, Salvadoran Civil War guerillas bombed a power plant and blacked out San Salvador. A few months later, guerillas targeted a dam that provided half of El Salvador's electricity. By November, a third of this small, Central American nation had seen its electricity knocked out. All told, in only four months, Salvadoran guerillas attacked that country's electric grid more than 150 times, blacking out some cities for as long as seven weeks.
These few events point out the vulnerability of an electric grid—any electric grid, whether here in the so-called First World or other parts of the planet, whether today, twenty-seven years ago, or in the early part of the twentieth century. The grid has existed for more than 100 years without much attention being paid to what we want energy for, where and when we want it, the quality of the energy we want, and how much.
And regardless of its evolution (or lack thereof), the grid has become more and more a key component of national security. The electricity it supplies is the life support system of our modern society, of everything from medical equipment to traffic signals (and DoD office lights at the Pentagon). Knock it out, and, well, if you're a terrorist, you probably just got promoted.
Rocky Mountain Institute is working on a major project called the "Smart Garage"—the integration of vehicles, the grid, and buildings in which each would share electricity when it was advantageous to the other without being damaging to any. We aren't the only ones exploring this new energy paradigm. There are many initiatives across the nation with titles like "smart grid" and "plug-in." Our recent three-day "charrette" in Portland, Oregon explored how all these different sectors will come together.
The premise is pretty simple: the grid generates enough energy to power a lot of vehicles with fully or partially electric capabilities. Incorporating additional renewable energy sources, like wind, which in many places blows more at night, (when the vehicles would usually be charging up) results in even cleaner electrons moving through our fleet. The vehicles—if things go as many expect—will one day be able to hold a lot more power in their storage devices than there was in all the power plants connected to the grid.
Electric Vehicles Bring Security to the Grid
While many buyers of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are thinking their contribution to national security lies in saving oil, "A major benefit of electric vehicles, say many, is that they bring a new level of stability and control to the grid—including giving power back to the grid when it’s needed most (in blackouts or at times of peak demand)," notes RMI Analyst Mike Simpson. "By some estimates, a battery electric vehicle, with about 40 kilowatt-hours of usable energy, could power an entire residential block for more than an hour if necessary."
Ironically, "distributed" generation (and storage) is nothing new.
As RMI's Amory Lovins wrote in 2002:
Throughout the 20th century, coal- or oil-fired power stations evolved from local, neighborhood-scale generators into huge, remote, regional power plants that often served customers hundreds of miles away. Power distribution infrastructure evolved as a network rather than a direct line from producer to user, because interlacing the unreliable power stations of the early days with complex transmission systems made consumer power more reliable—if one plant went on the fritz, the consumer was still hooked up to the rest. As economies of scale drove utilities to build ever-larger power plants, the grid became more complex. Distance, complexity, and age made the grid steadily less reliable at the same time power plants were becoming more dependable.
Clearly, we forgot where we were going. With PHEVs and other distributed generation technologies, we can get back on the right route.
By: Rocky Mountain Institute, Cam Burns, Senior Editor
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