Our grid hasn't changed much
over the past 100 years.
Our grid — defined by centralized power generation and distribution — hasn't changed for a century. Once invaluable, this antiquated system now limits our progress with new, smart, clean technology.
20th Century: Centralized grid is key to electricity access for all
For more than 100 years, the centralized "hub and spoke" grid — large plants connected to the city by long power lines — accomplished a lot. It was also a necessity. In the late 1800s, the grid was a mess: countless firms wired electricity, dangerously and at great cost, to homes and businesses. A move towards centralization was natural.
Defined initially by the District of Columbia Appropriations Act of 1913, the DC Public Service Commission (DCPSC) oversaw the city's new system of centralized generation and distribution of power. It worked well. A single electric company, Potomac Electric Power Company ("Pepco"), was allowed to make a reasonable rate of return for its capital investments and operations. In return, it was heavily regulated to provide reliable, safe, and affordable electricity to any resident who wanted it.
The new grid flourished. By the middle of the 20th century, almost all DC residents had access to electricity. The ensuing improvements in quality of life, from laundry machines to kitchens to telecommunication, are hard to overstate. The fully centralized grid had served a worthy purpose.
Early 21st Century: Policy changes take steps towards consumer choice and sustainability
After roughly 100 years of centralized monopoly control over the electric system, a move towards greater consumer choice — enabled by improved technology — marked the dawn of the 21st century. In the District, the Retail Electric Competition and Consumer Protection Act of 1999 made fundamental changes. The law opened up the electricity market, allowing consumers to buy power from third-parties (vs. the previous singular option, Pepco). This includes not only electricity purchased from the centralized grid, but also from distributed energy resources (DERs). No longer stuck with a single option, residents and businesses can now buy solar, batteries, and smart building products from a broad market.
Other local legislation further improved conditions for renewables. Perhaps most notably, the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 (and subsequent amendments) created strong requirements and subsidies for energy efficiency and solar.
Yet, in spite of these changes, the widespread adoption of energy efficiency, solar, and smart building technologies has not materialized. For instance, as of March 2018, solar in DC provides less than 0.75% of our power needs. Distributed resources remain at the margins of our local energy landscape.
The energy system that's existed since the early 1900s — large plants delivering power through long transmission lines — continues without disruption.
2003, 2012, 2018: Northeast Blackout, Hurricanes & Maria show grid's vulnerabilities
The centralized grid was long considered a near failproof provider of reliable power. That's changing.
As recent events have underscored, our power grids are at significant risk of failure during extreme weather (and potentially security) events. With most homes and businesses connected to remote power plants by long transmission lines, this isn't surprising.
When an extreme event (e.g. weather, infrastructure failure, security) disrupts any part of the "hub and spoke" system — either the central power generation or the power lines — the system fails. Some examples:
Northeast Blackout (2003). At 2pm EDT on August 14, 2013, a northern Ohio power line, softened and sagging due to the heat of the current running through it, shut down after brushing against overgrown trees. The problem should have tripped an alarm, but the alarm, not properly maintained, failed. Over the next two hours, three more lines sagged into trees and shut down, putting even more stress on other power lines. By 405pm, the combined power surge led to a cascade of failures throughout eight northeastern states and southeastern Canada. The end result? 50,000,000 people were without power for as long two days — the largest blackout in US history.
Hurricane Sandy (2012). Roughly 8,500,000 people lost power as a result of Sandy — including over a million residents who were left without electricity for more than a week. The damages to the economy were enormous: $20 billion in losses from suspended business activity due to power outages. One of the noteworthy lessons learned: the businesses that didn't suffer losses were those that had "islanded" themselves from the centralized grid.
Hurricane Maria (2018). The devastation from Maria has been extraordinary and continues to this day. When the hurricane made landfall on September 20, 2017, nearly everyone in Puerto Rico lost power. The island's energy infrastructure — with several large plants connected to homes and businesses by power lines that crisscross from coast to coast — suffered an almost complete failure. Millions of Puerto Ricans were without power for more than a week; hundreds of thousands had no electricity for months. Incredibly, seven months later, thousands of residents still remain without power.