Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. in 2005 and the earthquake off the coast of Japan in 2011 (which resulted in a devastating tsunami and the nuclear accident in Fukushima) have profound effects on the electricity grid. In a 2009 report, the U.S. Department of Energy stated that Hurricane Katrina caused approximately 2.7 million customers to lose power and that it took four to eight weeks to restore electricity to all but the worst affected households in the Gulf region. Additionally, the storm caused Entergy New Orleans to file for bankruptcy as it simultaneously faced restoration costs and large loss of revenues. Japan’s earthquake and tsunami severely damaged the energy sector of the country. In addition to the disabled nuclear plant Fukushima Daiichi, many other nuclear plants in Japan were shut down due to safety concerns, resulting in nearly 65 percent of the country’s nuclear energy being off-line in the summer of 2011. Rolling black outs resulted, especially in Tokyo. In the U.S., even smaller ice and snow storms in the winter or thunderstorms in the summer impair the electricity grid and routinely cause power outages in impacted regions.
In addition to natural disasters, September 11, 2001 has also increased the fear of a terror attack on the electricity grid. When a blackout caused over 50 million customers to lose power in large parts of the Northeast, including New York City, in August 2003, many initially suspected a terrorist attack. While the cause was eventually determined as an increase in power demand that led to an overload of the power lines and consequent failure of the power system, analysts have predicted that terrorist attacks could cause similar or more intense outages. Protecting the electricity grid from terrorist attacks is “ ‘both a hardware and a software issue,’ because hackers can use viruses to make industrial control programs go haywire and damage critical equipment such as transformers.” This makes the protection of the grid a dual challenge. The Stuxnet computer virus, which affected Siemens software used primarily in nuclear power plants, was a recent example of a virus impacting the electricity grid.
Industrial countries like the U.S., Japan, and Germany depend on a functioning electricity grid as the backbone of their economies and way of life. Impediments to the electricity grid not only harm the economy and hurt the bottom line; they can also cause loss of life and hamper a country’s ability to react to a large-scale catastrophe. Decentralized energy schemes such as microgrids and distributed energy generation can play an important role for developed countries in mitigating risk and security threats to the electricity sector and ensuring continuous electricity delivery even in times of natural disasters or terrorist attacks.
The Current Situation in Germany and the U.S.
The U.S. and Germany both have a more or less centralized energy grid. The U.S. has three independently synchronized grids: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Germany has four electricity sub-grids, which are all interconnected in one German-wide grid.