rooftop solar panels

Solar panels could protect the military from attacks on the energy grid

Rooftop solar panels and distributed energy grids are being touted as a way to secure energy supplies from vulnerabilities in the power grid that could be used by attackers.

The technical community has called for building up the resilience of the grid using microgrids for stabilisation. Power production from multiple sources increases the difficulty of triggering cascading blackouts, and following an attack or natural disaster, microgrids can provide localised energy security.

In a new paper published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, an interdisciplinary team of engineering and energy policy experts from Michigan Technological University says the first step is to outfit military infrastructure with solar photovoltaic (PV)-powered microgrid systems.

Their results found that the military needs 17 gigawatts of PV to fortify bases in the US and the systems are technically feasible, within current contractors’ skill sets and economically favourable.

 “I come from a military-oriented family, so for me the military is important to bridge the technical capacities and policies to trickle down to other critical infrastructure and services,” said the paper’s lead author, Emily Prehoda. “This is such a huge issue, not only for the military but for other organisations, and it hits from all different sides, from the technical, economic and social—and it leads back to the idea of security.”

The US military already has a renewable energy plan in place: 25 per cent of energy production from renewable sources by 2025, but only 27 of the more than 400 domestic military sites either have fortified PV microgrids running now or have plans to do so, which makes the majority vulnerable to long-term power disruptions.

Co-author on the study Joshua Pearce says this is a great start but more is needed as most military backup systems rely on generators, which are also vulnerable to fuel supply disruption.

“The US military is extremely dependent on electricity now; it’s not people fighting with bayonets,” he said.

“If we put the money into PV-powered microgrids, it would be making us objectively more secure and we get a return on our investment as after the initial investment in PV the military would enjoy free solar electricity for the next 25 years.”

The main historical threats to the electrical grid come from natural disasters like tornados, hurricanes and winter storms, which cost between $18bn and $33bn every year in power outages and US infrastructure damage.

But the threats that keep grid security experts up at night are deliberate attacks on the grid. These can either be physical attacks—like the 2013 sniper attack on a Silicon Valley substation, which cost $100m and lasted 27 days—or computer hacking that causes cascading disruptions like in the Ukraine blackouts in 2016. 

In 2012, the US Department of Defence reported about 200 cyber incidents across critical infrastructure systems and nearly half targeted the electrical grid.

Microgrids provide flexibility and enable generation to persist even if distribution fails, maintaining performance for critical infrastructure while decreasing the chance of cascading failures.

Solar, because of its decreasing costs and geographically distributed access to long-term solar “fuel”, was found to make the most sense for powering microgrids.

The team found that it would take 2,140 gigawatts to supply all critical infrastructure in the US with 100 per cent solar power and a hybrid microgrid system with storage to provide protection against grid failure. The military alone would need 17 gigawatts. To put that in perspective, the US has installed a total capacity of 22.7 gigawatts of solar to date.

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