Grid Vulnerability

By Kolby Hoagland | March 14, 2014

Modern societies demand consistent supplies of electricity. When the power goes out, life essentially stops. We are unable to work and most other of life’s task prove to be more cumbersome without the support of electrified appliances.

 A recent report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission highlights the vulnerability of our nation’s grid to a small scale terrorist attack. Though much of the vulnerabilities highlighted in the report are to sub-stations, various components of the entire grid have weaknesses. In this week’s DataPoints I’d like to draw attention to one of those weaknesses, the age of our nation’s base load generation fleet.

The table below breaks down the U.S.’s power generation fleet by fuel feedstocks, providing total capacity and age indicators for each sector.

Age of Grid

Nuclear, coal, and hydro provide the majority of the countries base load power, and as they age grid reliability becomes an increasing concern. The expected life of most coal plants (40 years) has been exceeded, and a recent crack in a major U.S. dam raises concerns. Action is needed if we want a resilient grid, and distributed generation is an option that encourages grid stability and fits well within the parameters for biomass power plants.

The grid was originally built around large, centralized power plants, but times have changed. Plant capacity constraints of renewable installations and the threat of terror attacks encourage a switch to smaller scale distributed generation. Besides the threat of terror at the large, highly dependent generation plants, the coal and hydro generation sectors will only become unstable as they pass into their 50’s and 70’s, respectively. With its inherent preference for base load generation and relative youth of the fleet, the biomass power sector has a strong role to play in replacing the aging base load providers.