Carnegie Mellon joins national energy experts to find solutions to aging electricity grids

Seeking and finding solutions

Carnegie Mellon University Professor Granger Morgan joins a forum of electricity industry experts from 8 a.m. to noon on Feb. 15 at the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., to discuss the need for modernizing the nation's electricity delivery system.

"As a result of industry restructuring, difficulty in locating new facilities, ambiguity about who is in charge of what, and low research investment, we have allowed our electricity infrastructure to degrade. We see the consequences of that in blackouts like those that have occurred in both the northeast and on the west coast in recent years," said Morgan, who co-directs Carnegie Mellon's Electricity Industry Center. "As the Energy Policy Act of 2005 is implemented, this is a perfect time to begin assessing remaining problems, challenges and the tools needed to improve the system."

Morgan said the expert panel will discuss the state of the nation's electricity system, the key obstacles to change and the best portfolio of technology and policy solutions to update a creaky, old electricity infrastructure that routinely breaks down or seems to stop for no apparent reason. However, because he believes that others on the panel will make a strong case for basic infrastructure improvements, Morgan says he will focus his remarks on four other objectives that he believes the nation must pursue in addition to strengthening and renewing the current system.

"The power system is highly vulnerable to both natural disasters such as hurricanes and ice storms and to terrorist attacks," Morgan said. "While there is a limit to how much we can harden the system against such assaults, there is much we can do to speed recovery.

"When the power goes out, there is no reason why critical social services such as traffic lights, water and sewer systems, gas stations and cell phones should stop working," Morgan adds. "There are affordable technical solutions that could keep these and other critical systems operating and make the nation less vulnerable."

Morgan also notes that we throw away much more of the energy we consume. "A really good coal-fired power plant only turns about 40 percent of the energy from coal into electricity," he said. "The rest of the energy goes up the cooling tower as waste heat.

"Advanced distributed generation systems, which use waste heat to replace furnaces or air conditioners, can double the efficiency with which energy is used. Advanced appliances, such as solid-state lighting, can also improve efficiency," Morgan said.

Finally, Morgan argues that the nation needs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation by more than 80 percent during the next 50 years to slow the impacts of global warming. Together with colleagues Jay Apt and Lester Lave, Morgan showed in a recent report to the Pew Center on Climate Change that this could be done at an overall long-term cost increase in the price of electricity of only about 20 percent -- less than the difference in rates across the U.S. today -- and a small price to pay to save arctic tundra, seals, polar bears, coral reefs and other valuable ecosystems, according to Morgan.

Morgan, who heads Carnegie Mellon's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, serves as the chair of the new National Regulatory Committee on power grid security and terrorism, which is supported by the Department of Homeland Security. However, he says his remarks this week will reflect only his personal views.

The editorial deliberations of academy committees are not made public until a report has been reviewed and is officially released, according to Morgan.

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Other electricity forum speakers include Joseph T. Kelliher, chairman of the Federal Regulatory Commission; Kevin Kolevar, director of the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability at the U.S. Department of Energy; Sam J. Ervin IV, commissioner of North Carolina's Utilities Commission; and Diane Munns, commissioner of the Iowa Utilities Board.

The forum is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Electricity, Delivery and Energy Reliability; the Consumer Energy Council of America; and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.


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