Friday, August 19, 2005

Belated Anniversary
As I catch up on the email and articles that accumulated during my vacation, one op-ed in the New York Times caught my eye, because I was looking for something marking the second anniversary of the Great Northeast Blackout. The author laments the scant progress since then in securing our power grids against a deliberate attack. Considering the paralysis resulting from an accidental overload in the Midwest, it's sobering to consider what a dedicated terrorist might achieve on purpose. And while putting guards on key substations and other energy nodes might be a good stop-gap, I don't see much commentary about the role of distributed power, and renewable distributed power in particular, in helping to reduce our vulnerability in this area.

If you start from the premise that we are grappling with smart, capable opponents, at least at the leadership level, it makes sense to be worried about our energy infrastructure. Rather than trying to block every conceivable vulnerability, and focusing most of our efforts on those that have already been exploited, we might be better served by establishing a "red team", i.e. a bunch of guys who can think like the terrorists, and letting them plan their worst. To such a team, our energy infrastructure would look irresistible, with its pervasive impact and abundant choke points.

In addition, a great deal has been written recently about the virtues of reducing our dependence on imported oil as a way of hobbling Al Qaeda and its supporters in the Middle East. This seems like a pretty indirect and slow-motion response, as I've suggested previously. Putting up solar panels, small wind turbines, and other highly-distributed means of generating electricity may work on a much smaller scale, but it has the virtue of being immediately effective, at least locally.

Although I always worry about the risk of of subsidizing an energy dead end, such as grain ethanol, it strikes me that providing more support for small-scale renewable power and the network protocols to accommodate it within the grid would be at least as useful as many of the other ways we have responded to the terrorist threat. It also aligns nicely with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and manage our growing energy imports.

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