04/15/2014 10:28 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2014

For Energy Security, Bring a Gun to the Knife Fight

For those who see September 11 as the "ground zero" date for thinking about national security, they can add the August 14, 2003, grid failure to their view. That was when the nefarious action of a tree branch falling on a power line cut power for 50 million people in 7 industrial states plus Ontario for up to 2 days.

Then another date to add is April 16, 2013, when a still unknown group assaulted the grid serving Silicon Valley in a twenty-minute high precision shooting spree against a substation with 17 transformers. Appearing to have insider knowledge, the shooters targeted cooling units. Due to the time of day and year, the grid's load was low enough for sufficient extra juice to come from nearby power stations to prevent an outage. Disaster averted, but major lesson learned.

As Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has said often and publicly, this attack may have been a dress rehearsal for a wider attack against the nation. Maybe we could thank the attackers for showing us something critical to our survival.

As it is, cyber security for utilities is burgeoning. According to a new report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Department of Homeland Security responded to 198 cyber incidents in fiscal year 2012 across all critical infrastructure sectors, with forty-one percent involving the electricity sector.

FERC is ordering standards for how utilities shall examine their systems and interconnects to secure the most vulnerable and high-value portions. The order also seeks procedures allowing utilities to confidentially report and seek help about their challenges. A key stalling point for utilities dealing with grid security is just concern about breaching confidentiality agreements, or triggering fines, or the lack of guidelines for getting improvements paid for.

Red tape galore. Who is surprised by structural inefficiencies in ancient business models?

Today's utilities attract attack from multitudinous directions. There's the threat of cyber and physical attack to the whole grid and its parts, and on the small number of manufacturers of custom-made substation components there is concern for attack, and there's the internal red tape that keeps utilities from moving expeditiously in this realm, and there's the even wilder threat of global warming bombarding us with monster storms creating monster blackouts. The grid appears to be a sitting duck that may stay ever thus.

The project is just unwieldy. Will authorities seek high walls and more video surveillance to look after the centralized portions of utility systems while large transmission lines, which are entirely visible and approachable on open lands, simply cannot be protected? In the theme of physical protection, some say that undergrounding of local distribution lines will protect us from monster storms, but that costly effort cannot protect against hacking and gunfire at transformers. In spite of the recent and laudable push to get utilities focused and vigilant with widespread and simulated war games, that wise "crap detector" we all have is yelling that our electric utility system may be too vast to protect at a good price.

Communities thinking for themselves may feel the need for alternative strategies, like bringing a gun to a knife fight. And it's right under our nose: distributed generation from rooftop solar coupled with battery storage and micro grids may be the ultimate backstop for security at critical services. Peter Lilienthal, CEO of HOMER Energy based in Boulder, draws a bright line: "The only way to truly assure high reliability of electric service is by adding more energy at the customer's end of the distribution system."

HOMER specializes in helping military outposts, remote communities and especially islands to design self contained micro grid systems to run off high penetrations of renewables along with storage and fluid (traditional) fuels. Lilienthal emphasizes that military and remote communities are leading innovation for micro grids, and such models can show us "grid folk" how to diversify our energy security as the component prices plummet.

Superstorms such as Sandy and Irene proved that gas stations are surprisingly critical to recovery. For the sake of emergencies, they should be off-grid capable with generators to run on their gasoline during outages, along with solar power to save on precious gasoline consumption during those key times as well as to power electric vehicles at good times. Being at corners, gas stations usually have enviable sunlight falling on them where they could also plausibly power nearby traffic lights during outages. So the potential of gas stations as critical emergency energy services is huge.

What else? How about parking lots at hospitals and all manner of government facilities being shaded with solar panels (and storage) to serve any number of energy uses in good times and bad?

Communities should think about threats to our giant, centralized grid and tell utilities, "Don't just protect the grid - help us fortify our essential services with distributed generation." In turn, utilities should create the business models that stop shunning distributed generation but incorporate it for energy security. In Colorado, Xcel should jump on this before cities launch such investments for themselves, hastening grid defection, as analyzed in detail by Rocky Mountain Institute for various energy markets.

Buckminster Fuller famously advised, "Do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete." Applied to this situation we can understand that the grid is too valuable to become fully obsolete, but it seems to have unmanageable frailties that can be shored up by a investing in a new paradigm - off-grid capable distributed generation.