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It’s Time to Decentralize the Power Grid

After the catastrophic windstorm, it was only a matter of time before the utilities and their disgruntled customers started looking for someone to blame for the seemingly endless dark and cold of the power outage.

Rather than look for scapegoats, we would like to propose a positive remedy that could ease the suffering in the event of a future natural or manmade disaster. The solution can be summarized in a word: decentralization.

We are currently dependent on a central grid that provides electrical service to one and all. This results in a needless vulnerability that could be greatly ameliorated by smart planning.

A power outage, after all, happens almost every year at least once. And without fail, people act like some previously unknown misfortune has struck.

But don’t feel sorry for Seattle after the storm. Save your pity for “the big one,” the major earthquake we are told is inevitable. And that is the point. Big storms, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and other natural disasters are statistically predictable. Terrorist attacks are surely menacing dangers to be added to that list now.

Since the centrally linked power grid is truthfully our country’s secret Achilles’ heel, we ought to be thinking more about providing alternate power options and ensuring redundancy for emergencies.

Downtown Seattle and the close-in neighborhoods seldom lose their lights for long, or at all. But in the outlying areas the morning after the big windstorm, more than a million households lacked power.

Past experience predicted that it would be a week or more before all power was restored. And that is exactly what happened, with equally predictable results. Shut down electric power and our oil and gas furnaces stop, computers stop, stores close, streetlights and stoplights fail.

Your cellphone is a great help until you can’t recharge it. Those most vulnerable suffer first, then the pain and confusion radiate through the wider society. Finally, the gathering woe affects the economy.

Why has there been so little progress in requiring backup-power options for households and, cumulatively, the general society?

The free market alone will not do the job, because it doesn’t seem to be in people’s private interest to prepare for what probably is not going to affect individuals for long durations. A power outage is an inconvenience, but so is installing a $2,500 generator and learning how to use it. One puts off that sort of thing.

But when a major hurricane, big earthquake or terrorist disruption takes place, the inconvenience of persons is transformed into a society-wide catastrophe leading to crime outbreaks, social disruption and long-term economic damage. Remember Katrina?

It thus becomes the government’s responsibility to act.

Any given community or state, and the country as a whole, needs backup-energy plans. They should provide for energy sources that do not collapse when the normal power grid goes down. In Florida, the state now requires filling stations to have generators. People can then purchase gas products after a hurricane even if the power remains down.

In Seattle this time around, people in some areas had to line up at stations that still had electricity. The scenes were reminiscent of the 1973 oil crisis.

We already have generators to take over at hospitals when the power goes out. We should start making generators — with safety instructions — a legal requirement for most businesses and perhaps any new home that is built.

Maybe all it would take is a device that would simply provide the small amount of electric power an oil or gas furnace needs to keep going after an emergency. Surely such an invention should come with every new furnace and be available for relatively inexpensive retrofits.

Why in the 21st century do we still have a centrally commanded power production and distribution system that can be shut down (and cause widespread distress) by nothing more than a natural disaster?

Decentralization works in many parts of our economy to provide robust backup, whether in transportation or even jobs. There is no reason that the electric-power system should be so centralized that it makes almost everyone vulnerable to its failure.

Granted, the central grid is a marvel and usually serves us in wondrous ways we don’t even notice. The people who operate it deserve appreciation, especially the often-heroic workers called to make repairs after disasters. But we need backup — for individual households, communities, and the whole country.

Bruce Chapman is president of the Discovery Institute, where David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow. They live in Seattle and on Mercer Island respectively.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.