Though less fierce than expected, Hurricane Gustav highlighted once again the vulnerabilities presented by our centralized energy systems.
Within the Gulf of Mexico, 98 percent of the oil and natural gas production facilities were shut down, ahead of the storm. More than 10 refineries were also closed, while numerous others were running at a reduced rate. Combined, this halted at least 18 percent of the U.S. capacity to turn crude oil into gasoline and other petroleum products.
The storm passed directly over the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, a facility that unloads tankers and accounts for 10 percent of U.S. oil imports. Transmission lines gave way to the wind and knocked 35 substations out of service, leaving more than one million customers without power.
Back in 1982, Amory Lovins -- Chief Scientist and founder of Rocky
Mountain Institute -- warned the U.S. Department of Defense that a handful of people could cut off three-quarters of the Eastern states' oil and gas supplies in one evening without leaving Louisiana.
Had we heeded and acted on Lovins' warning and subsequent advice, Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav may not have presented such challenges for our energy infrastructure and security.
According to Lovins, true security measures -- led by energy efficiency and distributed, renewable resources -- can make us feel safe in ways that work better and cost less.
What does a secure energy system look like?
To begin with, it is geographically dispersed, comprised of redundant smaller modules that can back each other up, is located close to end-users to minimize transmission lengths, and is heavily interconnected so that if one part fails, other components continue to work seamlessly.
As Lovins indicated to the U.S. Senate in 2006, both energy independence and its purpose, energy security, rest on three pillars:
1. Making domestic energy infrastructure, notably electric and gas grids, resilient through efficiency, diversity, and distributed systems.
2. Phasing out, not expanding, vulnerable facilities and unreliable fuel sources.
3. Ultimately eliminating reliance on oil from any source.
In 2004, RMI published an independent, peer-reviewed study cosponsored by the DoD showing how to eliminate U.S. oil use (pillar #3) by the 2040s and revitalize the economy -- all led by business for profit.
Let's hope we don't wait for Hurricane Number Three before we improve the security, reliability, and resilience of our energy infrastructure.
Image Credit:: NASA/Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS