Ida renews calls for decentralizing grid

New Orleans could be in the dark for days or weeks

HURRICANE IDA delivered a knockout punch to the power grid in New Orleans on Sunday, plunging the city into darkness and renewing a long-running national debate about the best way to deliver electricity at a time in history when severe storms and weather are becoming more commonplace.

Storms like Ida illustrate the vulnerability of a centralized power grid. The storm knocked down transmission lines serving New Orleans and made it impossible to deliver electricity to the city. 

The local utility, Entergy, tweeted on Tuesday that it was “conducting inspections of the system to get a clearer picture of what will be needed to repair the destruction. Full damage assessment could take several days, as many areas are currently inaccessible.”

In the meantime, there is no power for charging phones, turning on the lights, or running a laptop. 

These sorts of doomsday scenarios are still rare but becoming less so. In Texas last winter, frigid temperatures pushed the power grid to the brink and caused thousands of homeowners to lose power and heat. California had to order rolling blackouts the year before during an intense heat wave. 

New England so far has avoided these types of catastrophic failures, but it came close during the winter of 2013-2014 when an extended stretch of unusually cold weather pushed the power grid to its limits. The gas pipelines serving the region were unable to meet the demand for gas needed to heat homes and run power plants. Some gas-fired power plants were forced to shut down; plants that relied on coal and oil were unable to replenish their supplies. Electricity prices skyrocketed and there were indications that rolling blackouts would have been needed if the cold snap had continued several days longer. 

Each time one of these energy crises happens, there are calls to rethink the bigger-is-better mentality that drives most grid operators. It makes economic sense to build a small group of large power plants capable of delivering a large amount of electricity to a large number of people. But there is a growing consensus that more emphasis needs to be placed on localized generation of renewable electricity at the plant, home, and community level. 

“Solar energy plus storage is as transformative to the electric sector as wireless services were to the telecommunications sector,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, told the New York Times.

But in some ways climate change, which is causing many of the electric grid disasters, is also prompting a new type of bigger-is-better approach. President Biden, for example, is pushing for a huge expansion of solar and wind power to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. He is also proposing a major investment in transmission infrastructure to carry wind and solar power from where it is produced to where it is needed.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Most likely the grid of the future will have to accommodate big and small approaches to power generation. It won’t be easy and undoubtedly will require a lot of compromise. 

“The choices we make today will set us on a path that, if history is a barometer, could last for 50 to 100 years,” Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University, told the New York Times. “At stake is literally the health and economic well-being of every American.”