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The Rising Tide of Power Outages and the Need for a Stronger and Smarter Grid

Dr. Massoud Amin

Power outages and power quality disturbances cost the U.S. economy between $80 billion and $188 billion per year. Transmission and distribution losses in the U.S. were about 5% in 1970, and grew to 9.5% in 2001, due to heavier utilization and more frequent congestion.

Figure 1

Analyses of these data collected revealed that in the period from 1991 to 2000, there were 76 outages of 100 MW or more in the second half of the decade compared to 66 such occurrences in the first half (Figure 1). Furthermore, there were 41% more outages affecting 50,000 or more consumers in the second half of the 1990s than in the first half (58 outages in 1996–2000 versus 41 outages in 1991–1995). Further analyses show that there were 200 outages of 100 MW or more during 2001-2005; such outages have increased to 219 during 2006-May 2010. Additionally, the number of U.S. power outages affecting 50,000 or more consumers increased from 197 (during 2001-2005) to 312 (during 2006-May 2010).

Adjusting for 2% per year increase in load to 2001 levels, the above outages reflect the following trend: there were 189 outages of 100 MW or more during 2001-2005; such outages have slightly increased to 190 during 2006-May 2010. Assuming the same 2% annual demand growth, the number of U.S. power outages affecting 50,000 or more consumers increased from 186 (during 2001-2005) to 297 (during 2006-May 2010).

As an energy professional and electrical engineer, I cannot imagine how anyone could believe that in the United States we should learn to “cope” with these increasing blackouts— and that we don’t have the technical know-how, the political will, or the money to bring our power grid up to 21st century standards. Coping as a primary strategy is ultimately defeatist. We absolutely can meet the needs of a pervasively digital society that relies on microprocessor-based devices in vehicles, homes, offices, and industrial facilities. And it is not just a matter of “can.” We must—if the United States is to continue to be an economic power. However, the deployment of smart grids will not be easy or cheap.

The costs of full implementation for a nationwide Smart Grid range over a 20-year period (2010-2030):

  • A study by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) published in January 2010 revealed that the actual costs will come closer to $165 billion over the course of 20 years.
  • According to energy consulting firm Brattle Group, the necessary investment to achieve an overhaul of the entire electricity infrastructure and a smart grid is $1.5 trillion spread over 20 years (~$75 billion/year), including new generators and power delivery systems.
  • My work from 1998-present has shown that it will cost $10-$13 billion/year for 10 years or longer; about $150 to $170 billion over this period.

Despite the costs of implementation, integration of the Smart Grid will result in:

  • Costs of outages reduced by about $49B per year
  • Increased efficiency and reduced emissions by 12-18% per year (PNNL report, January 2010)
  • A greater than 4% reduction in energy use by 2030; translating into $20.4 billion in savings
  • More efficient to move electrical power through the transmission system than to ship fuels the same distance. With goals of increased efficiency, sustainability, reliability, security and resilience, we need both:
    • Local microgrids (that can be as self-sufficient as possible and island rapidly during emergencies)
    • Interconnected, smarter and stronger power grid backbone that can efficiently integrate intermittent sources, and to provide power for end-to-end electrification of transportation
    • Reduction in the cost of infrastructure expansion and overhaul in response to annual peaks. The demand response and smart grid applications could reduce these costs significantly.
    • Increased cyber/IT security, and overall energy security, if security is built in the design as part of a layered defense system architecture
    • Electricity’s unique capability to be produced from a wide variety of local energy sources, along with its precision, cleanliness, and efficiency, make it the ideal energy carrier for economic and social development.

In addition, the current high-voltage system needs to be expanded and strengthened (U.S. DOE National Electric Transmission Congestion Study, AEP HV transmission assessment for wind integration, and EPRI assessments 2003-2009). The total cost of the expanded transmission system is about $82 billion.

In summary, a stronger and smart grid would pay for itself by increasing efficiency by 5% (translating into $20.4 billion in savings annually) and reducing costs of outages by about $49 billion per year. It’d also reduce emissions by 12-18% per year, increase overall energy security and spur economic growth.

A key challenge before us is whether the electricity infrastructure which underpins our economy, society, and quality-of-life will evolve to become the primary support for the 21st century’s digital society- a smart grid with self-healing capabilities that powers our innovation and economy – or be left behind as an 20th century industrial relic? And finally: What are the costs of not implementing change?

We must modernize the electric power infrastructure and evolve it into a smarter, stronger, more secure and more resilient system. Electricity is the lynchpin, and enabling the infrastructure for all knowledge- and innovation-based economies.

Dr. Massoud Amin is the Director of the Technological Leadership Institute (TLI) at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. TLI offers graduate studies programs in security technologies, management of technology and infrastructure systems engineering.

[image credit static416 via Flickr]

    9 comments to The Rising Tide of Power Outages and the Need for a Stronger and Smarter Grid

    • Black Velvet Solar of Pittsboro, NC announced successful demonstration of its 3DFS™ Power Controller that is designed to deliver power that is more than 100X cleaner than electricity provided by the public grid, while delivering power savings on the order of 25 to 40%. Unlike competing products the 3DFS™ Power Controllers operate on a real-time basis, not only correcting less than ideal power factors but also removing all noise and transient disturbances in the power supply. The 3DFS™ Power Controllers also provide audit trails of power savings for federal and state energy credit programs and can be networked to accommodate smart grid functions.

    • Are these Power outages and power quality disturbances due to cyber attacks? Or general maintanance. I suppose every country faces similar cost percentages when power is out, but the reason for the shortages should be justified. In South Africa we have faced incredible power outages in the recent years due to “unimcumbered” additional demand for power. This is turn has developed scheduled power outage times to be able to control the level of power being circulated throughout.

    • orbit7er

      We need LOCAL renewable Solar, Wind, Microhydro power
      before building out the Grid!
      We need energy efficiency to reduce electric consumption as much as possible in the first place.
      It is a lot more efficient to provide power directly than
      transmit it long distances with inevitable line loss.
      We need to STOP subsidizing personal electric cars at $7500 per car and instead get people out of cars and
      into Green electrically powered public transit.
      We need local storage of the renewable electrical power
      produced by solar, wind, etc. This is still a technical problem requiring various approaches to solve.
      But continuing centralized power sources is not really the model for a sustainable future.

    • Needed to put this very small remark to thank you over again over the unique concepts you’ve provided here

    • really amazing submit, cheers

    • Many thanks for your remarks and feedback,for pertinent and updated information please visit and click on the “selected publications” on the gray side bar.

      More specifically please see “Turning the Tide on Outages: What are the true costs of implementing – or failing to implement – a stronger, smarter and more robust grid?”

      Just two short nuggets pertinent to your comments:

      1) In an average year, outages total 92 minutes per year in the Midwest and 214 minutes in the Northeast. Japan, by contrast, averages only 4 minutes of interrupted service each year. The outage data excludes interruptions caused by extraordinary events such as fires or extreme weather.

      2)I am often asked “should we have a high-voltage power grid or go for a totally distributed generation, for example with microgrids?” We need both, as the “choice” in the question poses a false dichotomy. It is not a matter of “this OR that” but it is an “AND.” To elaborate briefly, from an overall energy system’s perspective (with goals of efficiency, eco-friendly, reliability, security and resilience) we need both 1) microgrids (that can be as efficient and self-sufficient as possible, and to island rapidly during emergencies), AND we need 2) a stronger and smarter power grid as a backbone to efficiently integrate intermittent renewable sources into the overall system.

      More details at the reference noted above at

      Many thanks for your efforts and interest in this timely area.

      Best regards,
      Massoud Amin

    • Proceedings of the 21st National Conference…

      Some valid points….

    • Merciii pour le post de cet article !

    • Kathy Bankston

      The future of energy distribution will rely upon a smart grid system. If been researching this topic over the past few weeks and I am amazed at the technology that is involved.

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