Monday, September 7, 2009

DOD Energy Blog Interview with Amory Lovins - 5 Part Series (part 5)

In this final installment of the DOD Energy Blog/Amory Lovins mid 2009 interview, we come full circle to one of the two primary findings of the 2008 Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force report on Energy: that bases put way too much faith in the reliability of the national electrical grid. Especially in times of war or terrorism that targets critical US infrastructure, bases need a Plan B that'll keep them up and running for weeks or months or longer, not the day or two that seems to be the norm at present.

Previous questions in this series have focused on two new energy-related systems traits Lovins has been championing recently: endurance and resilience, primarily from a mobile platform perspective (e.g., planes, tanks and jeeps, ships, etc.). This question takes one of them, resilience, and turns it to the above mentioned challenge of base dependency on the electrical grid, also known as the "brittle grid" problem.

A word of caution. It usually behooves a blogger to keep his work short and accessible, so busy readers can get a quick bite of hopefully helpful info and be back to other tasks in a flash. Well, that will not be the case with this post. Nevertheless, fans and followers of the influential Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and its outspoken founder will find there's a lot to sink their teeth into on this final part of the series.

Question 5) It seems the Resilience vector promotes traits similar to the benefits often ascribed to micro grids. Is that right? And is Resilience one response to the Brittle Grid problem?
Lovins: Resilience, said our DSB report, "combines efficient energy use with more diverse, dispersed, renewable supply—turning the loss of critical missions from energy supply failures (by accident or malice) from inevitable to near-impossible." I first described the design elements of resilience in Chapter 13 of Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security (a 1982 report to DoD that remains probably the definitive unclassified synthesis on energy-related critical infrastructure. What it predicted, and worse, has now come true. In 1984 I wrote:
These brittle devices [over-centralized energy systems] are supposed to form the backbone of America's energy supplies well into the 21st century—a period likely to bring increasing uncertainty, surprise, unrest, and violence. The U.S. cannot afford vulnerabilities that so alter the balance between large and small groups in society as to erode not only military security but also the freedom and trust that underpin constitutional government.
Here's how I described the design philosophy of resilience back then:
An inherently resilient system, it should include many relatively small, fine-grained elements, dispersed in space, each having a low cost of failure. These substitutable components should be richly interconnected by short, redundant links….Failed components or links should be promptly detected, isolated, and repaired. Components need to be so organized that each element can interconnect with the rest at will but stand alone at need, and that each successive level of function is little affected by failures or substitutions at a subordinate level. Systems should be designed so that any failures are slow and graceful. Components, finally, should be understandable, maintainable, reproducible at a variety of scales, capable of rapid evolution, and societally compatible.
Resilience can be achieved by design with comparable or, often, lower capital and operating cost. (For example, I've done it in my own photovoltaic-powered house: the lights don't flicker when we pull the plug on the grid. nor when we plug back in.) It's now governed by standards like IEEE 1547. In other words, COTS hardware now permits electric resilience at a wide range of scales. 
As DOD Energy Blog readers probably know, the DSB report recommended that at least the 584 CONUS bases eliminate their ~98+% reliance on the brittle power grid, and for their mission continuity, use their power efficiently and produce it onsite in netted islandable microgrids that also serve the surrounding communities where many of their people live. (This was already DoD policy under DoDI 1470.11 sec 5.2.3 but had been ignored.) Pacific Northwest Lab has found that ~90% of bases can do this, often with renewables, and often to economic advantage. A few bases have made a good start, but much more coherent policy and execution are needed.
There you have it: the case Lovins has been making for renewables-augmented Smart and micro grids for 25 years. And here we are today trying to decide if the time is right, and if so, how fast to push versus the thousand other priorities facing DOD and the country at present. Seems to me senior leadership is more attuned to the urgency of energy issues than at any time in the past, with the possible exception of a brief moment during the OPEC oil embargo of the 1973. Lovins learned and retained key lessons from that event and they have informed his work ever since.

The rest of us, less diligent, have taken energy for granted for too long and now the need for change has arrived with a sense of urgency that is surprising to some. Regardless, let's ensure we get off our butts and update our bases' power systems to ensure they are ready to fulfill critical missions for times when we need them most.

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