Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Investing in a Modernized Grid Can Advance U.S. Energy and National Security

| Nov. 07, 2017

Extreme weather events have tragically upended lives and damaged communities across the United States in the past two months. Climate change deniers are hard pressed to continue insisting that there is no connection between human activity and rising temperatures and stronger hurricanes: the American people are living with the evidence, from California wildfires to torrential storms and biblical-scale flooding in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. September 2017 was the most intensive month for Atlantic hurricanes on record and more than a million acres have burned in California this year due to the most damaging wildfires on record.

Severe weather has the capacity in a few minutes, hours, or days to destroy the power infrastructure upon which we depend for everything: light for our homes and workplaces, electricity for our communications, banks, supermarkets, and hospitals, fuel supplies for our vehicles. Compounding the difficulty of restoration of power, they often simultaneously damage other aging infrastructure like the roads and bridges on which first responders depend in order to rescue people and work to restore power.

What we know is that preparation in advance of natural disasters makes an enormous difference in recovery times. Five years ago, Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast at the end of October. Power outages affected 8.1 million homes and gasoline supplies were scarce due to pipeline disruptions. To facilitate the quickest possible restoration of normalcy, President Obama tasked the Department of Energy to build a public-private team with CEOs of major American utilities. The President himself directed that group to cut through red tape and do whatever needed to be done to diminish the suffering of citizens in the affected states and restore normal operations as quickly as possible.

Following Superstorm Sandy, government and industry launched a deliberate effort to ensure closer public-private electricity sector coordination to raise our collective game, especially as more than 90 percent of the power infrastructure is privately owned in this country. Specifically, teams planned, trained, equipped and exercised for a full spectrum of grid emergencies just as the Pentagon plans for war. As Deputy Energy Secretary from 2014 through 2017, I led these initiatives, and pushed to rapidly scale up our efforts in the face of growing threats to the grid. Importantly, the threats we focused on not only included the increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events but also the multiple malicious actors seeking to disable our way of life by exploiting attacks on this “soft underbelly” of our infrastructure.

To bolster our energy security and our national security, we must act decisively to increase American grid resilience and response capabilities. We need to accept reality and assess risk, prepare for the worst, train and equip our people, exercise continuously, and learn the lessons from those exercises to drive concrete action. Each government-industry exercise in which I participated demonstrated where our weak spots and vulnerabilities were and allowed us to begin addressing them before crises occurred.

Significantly, we have learned that the rapid deployment of innovative technology into our grid could speed recovery and response times considerably. And in the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s rage in Florida, the results are quantifiable. A recent U.S. Energy Information Administration report validates that investments made by Florida Power & Light in partnership with the Federal government to modernize infrastructure and build resilience have proven dispositive in restoring power promptly to millions of citizens following Hurricane Irma.

Poignantly, the experience of Florida is in direct contrast to what the citizens of Puerto Rico are living through. Whereas substantial investments were made over the past decade in hurricane preparedness and resilience in Florida, leading to relatively prompt restoration of power to most citizens there, the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was teetering long before the storm hit, with an evident lack of capital to invest in modernizing their infrastructure and a related inability to implement a long term strategic plan. The people of Puerto Rico are now suffering the consequences of this failure to invest in resilience through the extreme hardships they face today.

It is often said that in crisis there is opportunity – and in this urgent situation we should seize the moment to establish a national strategy for investment in a modernized grid that will enable the deployment of state of the art technologies that are both more efficient from a cost and energy use perspective and more resilient to the full spectrum of threats we will face in the future, including physical and cyber threats.

The Federal government has long been a sponsor of both basic and applied research at a network of national laboratories that spur this kind of innovation. Examples include research to ensure that our nuclear arsenal is secure from cyber attack which can be extrapolated to protect the grid; smart grid integration and grid scale test facilities that can simulate threats and responses; and the idea factory of the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E) which is turning novel concepts into real world solutions. Today these unique research capabilities are under siege because President Trump has proposed to slash their budgets, including a 90 percent cut to ARPA-E. If we are serious about countering threats to our grid to protect the homeland and our way of life, these efforts must be prioritized, sustained, and fully funded.

The risks posed to our energy infrastructure by extreme weather, physical attacks and cyber intrusions are real and growing. As the most innovative nation on earth, we should commit to generating and implementing the solutions that can position us to be much better prepared to withstand the events – both natural and manmade – that are inevitably coming our way.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall served as President Obama’s Deputy Secretary of Energy from 2014-2017 and previously as White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control. She is currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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For Academic Citation: Sherwood-Randall, Elizabeth.“Investing in a Modernized Grid Can Advance U.S. Energy and National Security.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, November 7, 2017.