Power Is Finally Back in Manhattan. Here’s How to Make Sure It Never Goes Out Again
After days without power, lower Manhattan began to get downright medieval. Because so many New York buildings depend on electric water pumps, the lack of running water created a distinctly primitive feeling — and smell. The human and economic cost has been serious—lost economic activity is estimated at $20 billion—and some unlucky residents in New York’s outer boroughs won’t have power for weeks.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Blackouts are a problem that can be solved. Given that hurricanes have doubled in frequency over the last century, they need to be solved. There are an awful lot of obstacles, but given that America tends to act in response to crisis, it is a good time to seriously reconsider the basic design of the electric system.
For some time now, it has been obvious that the highly-centralized design of the electric grid is fundamentally flawed—remember, for instance, New York’s massive blackout in 2003. In the current design, power is generated at a relatively small number of massive plants, like the nuclear reactors at Indian Point, and then transmitted long distances to substations, which step down and distribute the power for home use.
When the system works, it works fine, albeit in a wasteful and polluting way. But, like most large centralized systems, it has many individual points of failure. Consequently, when it fails, it fails big. Right now we’re seeing exactly what a big and expensive failure looks like.
There’s a better system. It goes by various names, including “microgrid” and “distributed generating.” The basic idea is to make the electric network more like the Internet. If well implemented, a better topology would make power failures less likely, and shorter when they happen. The key is to decentralize: to turn a regional electric network into a network of smaller, neighborhood networks, that no single points of failure, so no one substation can take down half a million homes.