Hurricane Maria and other natural disasters reinforce the importance
of electric grid efficiency and resiliency.
By Zolaikha Strong
If the power goes out because the electrical infrastructure in the region has failed, who would you call? As the number and severity of natural disasters continue to affect different parts of the world, we – as a nation or communities or as individual citizens or businesses – must invest in the resiliency of the very infrastructure that enables our own survival.
Puerto Rico’s ongoing humanitarian crisis – a culmination of what is being called the largest blackout in U.S. history – is just the most recent example of this.
As of March 1 – nearly six months after Hurricane Maria’s landfall destroyed two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s power distribution system – power still had not been restored to the full island, which remained plagued with grid restoration problems and additional powerline and power plant failures. The result: Hundreds of Americans have reportedly died.
The quality of our electrical infrastructure impacts significantly more than just jobs and the economy. The degree of advanced technology implemented, the quality of materials used and even the attentiveness of ongoing maintenance have major impacts on the state of our national grid. That in turn has major repercussions for public health and safety, the resiliency of communities and businesses, and national security.
Fortunately, not only do we have the innovative, accessible technology and material resources to build a stronger, more resilient America, we also have the evidence that it works. After hurricanes Harvey and Irma, millions of Floridians lost power for days or weeks when the grid went down. However, cities and citizens with off-grid solar systems — often enabled by rapidly developing battery storage technology — were able to maintain power for basic needs, such as functioning traffic lights and cooking food.
The Good News
The good news is that grid modernization and advanced energy technology – such as battery storage, electric vehicles, and solar and wind power – are more accessible and powerful than ever thanks to declining prices and technical innovation. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) International Energy Outlook 2017 named renewables the world’s fastest-growing energy source and predicted that worldwide renewable sources will generate more energy than coal by 2040.
Not only has the cost of battery storage been cut in half since 2014, but the National Renewable Energy laboratory (NREL) reported that solar panel prices fell 30 percent in just the first quarter of 2017. Federal and state solar goals are being smashed years early: Montana quadrupled its solar energy capacity in one year, beating the governor’s plan of doubling it by 2025. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Sunshot Initiative has announced it will expand after reaching its original goal to cut utility-scale solar costs three years early, largely due to rapid solar cost declines. The DOE’s new 2030 goals cut current utility-scale prices in half, trim commercial and residential solar costs to similar levels, and focus on an even broader scope.
Technological advancements have made these systems more affordable, durable and energy efficient, but the quality of the materials within the systems are also imperative to their success. In the case of energy systems, copper is not only a crucial building block of our national economy, it is also a fundamental component for the electrical infrastructure that powers it. Copper’s durability and conductivity increases the lifespan, reliability and efficiency of the systems in which it’s used.
Resiliency and energy security are vital for sustaining the electrical power infrastructure, particularly in areas already in desperate need of grid reconstruction or that have been decimated by a disaster. Having federal disaster funding in place is crucial so that more resilient, efficient and cost-effective energy infrastructure can be constructed and communities can be better prepared against tragedies like the one that crippled Puerto Rico.
Zolaikha Strong is the director of sustainable energy at the Copper Development Association (CDA) – which represents more than 80 percent of North America’s copper miners, fabricators and manufacturers – as well as a leader on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee.