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Could a distributed power network guard against threats to the grid like the Moore attack?

Solar panels on a roof
David Boraks
Some experts think switching to an electrical system with more distributed power generation, like rooftop solar panels and community solar farms, would reduce the risk of widespread power outages from attacks like those in Moore County this month.

This story originally appeared in WFAE reporter David Boraks' climate newsletter, emailed weekly on Thursdays. Get the news first in your inbox by signing up here.

This month's attacks on electrical substations in central North Carolina have a lot of people thinking about the security of the power grid. One expert I talked to called it America's Achilles' heel. The new year almost certainly will bring congressional and state hearings on the issue. Experts say improving grid security would cost millions of dollars and raise our electric bills.

The U.S. power system is centralized. We rely on large, mostly fossil-fuel-burning plants to generate electricity. It's sent out on high-voltage wires over long distances (the grid). Substations step it down to lower voltages to power your home or business. An attack, a storm or other disruption can affect the wider network.

But what if there was another way — a more decentralized solution?

The current model, enabled by state laws and policies, disincentivizes smaller, more localized power generation. Critics of the current system say big utilities like Duke Energy profit by building large and expensive energy projects and aren't moving fast enough on renewable energy.

A decentralized, or distributed power network would rely more on small solar and wind installations, batteries and microgrids. A microgrid is a small, localized power network that can operate independently of the larger grid if needed.

As I cover the aftermath of the attacks, I've been talking to experts about this idea.

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"Our grid is huge. It's the biggest machine in the history of mankind. And it's been patched together over generations. A lot of the vulnerabilities kind of stem from that," said independent grid security researcher Michael Mabee.

"If we moved towards smaller kinds of microgrids in different areas, it would definitely make us less vulnerable. One area might be vulnerable to a blackout from an attack, but that wouldn't cascade to other areas," he said.

Fighting climate change is already driving a push for more clean energy such as solar and wind power — and causing some experts to think about power more locally.

In my May 12, 2022, newsletter, I reported on entrepreneur Bill Nussey's campaign for "local solar," which would transform our energy model by putting solar on more rooftops and promoting community solar farms. Nussey wrote the 2021 book "Freeing Energy: How Innovators Are Using Local-scale Solar and Batteries to Disrupt the Global Energy Industry from the Outside In." He argues that we can add renewable energy more quickly by easing regulations on rooftop and community solar projects.

"It's faster to build. It's much cleaner. It's much more resilient," Nussey said at the State Energy Conference in Raleigh last spring. "It's much more innovative. It has free, open competitive markets, which is a big deal. It creates way more jobs — something both political parties love to see. And it's cheaper."

Besides speeding the adoption of renewable energy, a system where more power is generated locally also could improve our ability to recover from attacks like those in Moore County,

"Going toward smaller grids or microgrids for particular communities would, in my view, definitely make it harder to take out large portions of the electric grid," Mabee said.

Anurag Srivastava, a grid technology expert at West Virginia University, agrees. "It will become more resilient and keep the power on to this critical infrastructure," Srivastava said.

The Moore County attacks were first detected at Duke Energy's network monitoring center in Raleigh, where information is gathered from power stations and substations across the region. Srivastava said a decentralized power system would have to be managed differently.

"It would require distributed control and distributed generation, and a distributed way of monitoring, but all in a secure way. So that is the biggest challenge in that, " he said. "It's not easy to keep an eye on what's going on in your grid, because you still need to get all the information at some location."

Duke Energy is already developing and deploying technologies to manage a more decentralized power grid. That same equipment already helps the company quickly route power around outages, said spokesman Jeff Brooks.

"I don't think of things as an either/or. There's benefits of both systems," Brooks said. "We're trying to build a grid that is modernized and resilient and ready to provide increased resiliency and ability to recover from things like this."

Brooks said that same technology will enable a more distributed power grid. "So I think they're going to be working together, honestly. I think that you still need a utility system that can dynamically manage that power, dynamically dispatch it where it's needed … and be resilient to recover from situations like these."

Climate news in brief

  • Two big economic development announcements this week are the latest examples of the Carolinas' growing importance in the transition to electric vehicles. On Wednesday, South Carolina officials announced that Nevada-based Redwood Materials plans a $3.5 billion campus near Charleston to make battery components from recycled batteries. It's the state's biggest business investment ever, according to state officials - more than double the record $1.7 million battery and EV operation in Spartanburg announced in October by BMW. And on Tuesday, Charlotte-based Albemarle Corp. announced a $200 million lithium research center in Charlotte's University Research Park, off West W.T. Harris Boulevard. Both companies are seeking to expand their business supplying companies that make electric vehicle batteries.
  • Renewable energy is expected to account for more than 90% of new global electricity production over the next five years, and will pass coal as the largest source of electricity by early 2025. That'saccording to a Dec. 6 reportfrom the International Energy Agency. Adoption of solar and wind power have speeded up in part because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the agency says, as countries try to reduce their reliance on imported fossil fuels. "The world is set to add as much renewable power in the next 5 years as it did in the previous 20 years,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement. “This is a clear example of how the current energy crisis can be a historic turning point towards a cleaner and more secure energy system."
  • Belmont-based Piedmont Lithium is still waiting for state and local approval for its proposed lithium mine in Gaston County. But the company and its partners got the go-ahead this week to start mining at a site in Quebec when Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued a final needed permit. Piedmont owns 25% of the project, North American Lithium. The rest is owned by Sayona Mining. The company said in a news release that it expects mining to start by mid-year and lithium shipments to begin in the third quarter. 
David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.