Power transmission grids make society vulnerable to natural and human-induced disasters

By David von Seggern

During much of October of this year, California’s two largest power companies shut down power to millions of customers to prevent more wildfires from being caused by high-wind damage to the power grid.  Consequently homes, schools, businesses, factories, and other essential elements have been disrupted badly, leading food to rot in refrigerators and many California businesses unable to function.

Although happening in California now, such controlled outages could well happen in Nevada.  Switching to the other side of our country, I just returned from a trip to Maine where the “bomb cyclone” phenomenon knocked out power for many days to thousands of Maine customers. We don’t need to live with these threats if we plan ahead and pursue renewable energy solutions in our communities.  We could make power transmission—and the outages it can bring—a thing of the past.

The transmission lines that bring electrical power to our homes and businesses are fragile in the face of natural phenomena such as high winds, lightning strikes, earthquakes, and landslides.  Our centralized model of power—whereby we get electricity from one or a few power plants and transmission lines—is also fragile in the face of terrorist attacks. Power transmission uses cables that can break under modest stresses caused by toppling poles or falling branches, leading to blackouts or worse—wildfires.

We can avoid these problems by transitioning to distributed power and energy efficiency.  Distributed power occurs when individual homes or businesses generate their own power, or when small community power plants serve a limited number of local customers. With better-insulated buildings and energy-efficient appliances, we will need less power to begin with, making distributed power even more attractive. 

All new residential development should require energy-efficient homes and distributed power systems. California has already passed legislation to require solar panels on new homes beginning in 2020 (with some exemptions) or to require small distributed systems to power a new community. By these means which make unnecessary  long transmission lines, we can defend our communities from the hardships and mishaps related to power transmission.  

What about old construction?  Solarizing individual homes and businesses is well underway in Nevada.  When combined with batteries or other energy storage devices, this infrastructure makes solar power generation a truly distributed energy source. 

Such self-contained systems can remove the need for reliance on electrical transmission grids at some point in the future. Rural areas where lengthy transmission lines serve only a few places are excellent contenders for distributed power systems, maximizing energy independence while minimizing the risks of power outages and wildfires.  Tax-credit subsidies for such conversions make sense.

The continued construction and use of large-scale generation plants — whether renewable or traditional power — only perpetuate our reliance on a large and vulnerable infrastructure for power transmission.  While the cost benefit of centrally produced power is clear due to economy of scale, it includes hidden costs that Californians are unfortunately learning when the power goes out or their communities go up in flames. This economic model needs to be rethought.  I encourage our Nevada legislators to explore and increase the benefits of distributed power and incorporate this thinking into our progress toward a 100 percent renewable energy economy. 

David von Seggern is the past chair of the Sierra Club, Toiyabe Chapter.