In the past decade, severe weather has made power outages more frequent. A report released August 12, 2013, by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the White House says severe weather is the number one cause of power outages in the United States. The report further notes that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather (hurricanes, blizzards, floods, etc.) is expected to increase due to climate change. Last year the United States suffered 11 separate billion-dollar weather disasters, second only to 2011. These disasters put the U.S. energy sector in an increasingly vulnerable position.

Power outages can be a big deal. The last huge cascading blackout in the United States was a decade ago, and it left 50 million people across the Northeast without power for two days. The blackout cost the economy $10 billion, and led to at least 11 deaths. Ten years ago, the lights went out due to a combination of poorly trained operators, aging computer systems and untrimmed trees. While the grid has been improved since then, with the addition of hundreds of sensors and stronger regulations, the report says the grid remains "highly vulnerable" to blackouts.

Three-quarters of the current electrical infrastructure was installed over 25 years ago. This aging system contributes to problems during severe weather events because of its slow response time, lack of automated sensors, and general deterioration. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R. 1) allocated $4.5 billion to the DOE to upgrade the grid, and to date 3,000 distribution circuits have been upgraded to digital, 343 advanced grid sensors have been installed, and 6.2 million smart meters have been deployed.

These government funds are a drop in the bucket compared to the $478 billion that electric utilities have invested in updating their infrastructure since 2007, and the $90 billion they're expected to invest annually through 2015. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that overall, $673 billion would be needed to upgrade the grid to meet demand by 2020. The cost of these upgrades would be recouped by increasing consumer rates.

Paul Hines, a member of the School of Engineering at the University of Vermont, still doubts that the measures implemented so far will be able to prevent future blackouts. "We haven't come up with the technology or policies that will prevent these things entirely," he contends. Hines thinks that distributed generation is the real solution to rolling blackouts. Distributed generation is essentially the deployment of local power generation, often with renewable energy solutions such as solar, wind and geothermal power, which lend themselves well to distributed use. After Hurricane Sandy, solar panels and diesel-powered generators helped residents turn their lights back on. Perhaps the future of the grid is no grid at all.

Author: Laura Small