How to squirrel-proof the power grid


This is Larry. He’s a squirrel. He likes nuts. In 2019, he went into an electric box in Kettering,
Ohio. Is this a nut? It was not a nut. He broke the electric box. And caused a blackout for 20,000 people. Larry isn’t alone. Squirrels do this all the
time. Here’s a map of their exploits, just last year. But here’s the thing: Blackouts happen all
the time, for all kinds of reasons. Like wildfires. Or storms. And in the last half-century, there have been
more and more power outages because of weather. And it’ll only get worse because of our
changing climate. The way we power the world is fragile. But there’s a way to make it more resilient. Our current energy system looks like this: Right on top are power plants, which get their
energy from a variety of sources: like fossil fuels, wind and the sun. They distribute electricity down to thousands
— if not millions — of customers. So it’s a big, centralized system. When you’re sending a lot of power over just a few lines, that means that a tree falling on those power lines, or a storm can easily knock out power to a lot of people. That’s Umair Irfan. He writes about energy
policy for Vox.com. It’s not just an inconvenience,
it can affect the lives of thousands of people. We saw after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, a blackout that lasted for months. And thousands of people died. There are ways to avoid this, though. Some homes have generators. Some neighborhoods have their own solar panels. And some places even have their own small
power plants, like the New York University campus. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, they were
able to keep the campus lit — even when most of downtown Manhattan went dark. These are all examples of a microgrid. A decentralized system that can sustain itself when it needs to. And the US government has invested in this
technology. The military is very interested in microgrids.
This is something they’ve invested in heavily to power installations — both in the United
States and also in foreign areas where they may not have a reliable central power grid that they can count on. Another area is basically for remote, isolated communities that have a very fragile and tenuous
link to the main power grid. Microgrids are very useful during emergencies,
especially blackouts. But in an ideal world, we don’t just use
them for emergencies. They could restructure our current power system. If your goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,
you want to try to minimize the amount of fossil fuel you use and maximize the amount of
free solar and wind energy you have. Those can vary throughout the day. And so you want to route power from where it’s sunniest and windiest to the places that need it most. And that’s where microgrids come in. Microgrids can generate power using green
sources, like wind and solar. And unlike the power plants, they can store that energy. When it’s no longer sunny or windy, microgrids can jump in and say: “Hey! We have some power stored here!” And they can share their stored energy back
up into the big grid. But… One big issue is that a lot of utilities are effectively
monopolies and they’re regulated by regulators that are trying to protect these old business
models. The reason microgrids present a threat to these companies isn’t just that they help you survive a blackout. It’s that it can also change the source
of our power and the direction it flows in.

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