Strengthening the Grid

While we must become better students of the weather, we also must become stewards of the environment

electrical grid theme
Kampan/stock.adobe.com

Hurricane Ida was no longer classified as such by the time it reached the New York tri-state area. But in spite of that — and ample forewarning — the storm's "remnants" managed to kill 46 people. The question before us is daunting: How do we build infrastructure for a changed climate? In order to do so, we need to rethink our infrastructure completely as a collective whole. This will require not only hardening the grid, but also shoring up the reliability of other interconnected systems to ensure that, when failure inevitably does occur, we are able to respond quickly and repair the problem.

The key to whether we succeed or fail in this endeavor rests in our ability to conceive of infrastructure investment as a system. In our society, we tend to specialize, but this tendency can lead to catastrophe. We must conceive of infrastructure as a series of interrelationships — not as individual pieces. The debacle in the Northeast revealed how interconnected our infrastructure's various systems truly are. A mass failure across transportation, wastewater management, communication and electricity came together to create a disaster where many died from a single storm event. It was the same story in Texas last winter. While there's no question that we must strengthen the grid, making our wire system more robust is simply not enough: we also need to improve responsiveness.

What does that mean in terms of business? Simply put, it means that we must look at investment in the white space between systems. Take, for example, transportation, water management and communication. Failures among these three systems cascaded to yield the mess Ida left behind. But infrastructure, broadly speaking, is all of these systems combined. We need to understand the condition of each piece in real time and how it interrelates to anything it's connected to. In order for each part of our infrastructure to function well under stress, we have to know what its purpose is, what its condition is, its ability to perform its role, and how other systems can impact its performance.

Climate change demands joint planning and joint investment and the ability to be better at understanding weather and preparedness. We need real time data that will show us the patterns of our changed world. We must invest in systems that monitor and detect patterns. This means more AI and machine learning. This means more granular, actionable data. Being able to model and assess the interrelationships between systems and how failures of those systems cascade ought to dictate how, for instance, we build new roads and revamp power grids. We need to look at how different parts of the system might fail in different weather events. We need scenario planning in order to predict and understand possible failure modes.

The problem is that, right now, discrete systems only take into account their own goals. They are not designed to look for failure modes or engage in the kind of joint planning we so desperately need in a changed world. Investments must be made in intelligence systems that allow us to model this interaction, model various scenarios of stresses and failures, and direct appropriate investments and changes to make.

We need to be able to access and coordinate repairs when there's a failure, which will require infrastructural improvement across systems. When there's a huge wildfire that takes out multiple cell phone towers and makes communication impossible, we can't evacuate properly. When there's a massive flood that makes roads impassable due to failure in the sewage system, power lines cannot be repaired without a boat. We can no longer look at the grid without considering this interdependency.

Moreover, as we shift to understanding how systems interact, we must improve those individual systems, too. The first step in doing so is looking beyond the paradigm of having large centralized plants far from points of usage. As long as we have such plants, the challenge of delivering power through long wires far from load will be fraught with risks. All along the path, the grid is vulnerable to its physical environment. That exposure can be minimized through undergrounding.

Generators and decentralized power will also be key. Two major events in 2012 led to a major uptick in the use of generators in the Northeast: Superstorm Sandy and the mid-Atlantic and midwest Derecho. Today, anyone building a large new house puts in generators. Those with the disposable income to react are blazing the trail toward distributed generation, demonstrating that it is possible. It's the safer, more reliable play for energy delivery because it cuts out the issue of distance from the source. The next step is to make decentralized power the norm, whether through more affordable solar rooftop and battery systems, or through community energy systems.

More obviously, and crucially, we must become better at predicting the weather and invest heavily in new systems and proven technology that will allow us to do so. And, while we must become better students of the weather, we also must become stewards of the environment. To prepare for wildfire season, we must engage in more proactive and informed forestry practices. Additionally, to protect against floods, we must improve sewer systems and drainage. We also need to protect barrier islands and work with existing systems and geography to augment natural protection against the full brunt of storms and storm surges.

I could go on ad nauseum with such details and suggestions, but the bottom line is this: We need to get smarter. We must pour significant investment into information and intelligence systems that model and predict the exact kinds of catastrophes we are eager to head off. We must think systemically: Systems can be monitored, and that monitoring allows modeling which allows us to make predictions. If we fail to invest in the systems that enable this kind of prediction, we do so at our own peril.

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