Saturday, February 6, 2016

Security for Wind and Solar Energy

I've slowly become convinced that an electric power grid that was predominantly wind and solar might actually work and be cost-competitive.  It obviously depends on a big maturation of energy storage technology, but that seems to be moving forward.  As long as it scales as fast as fossil plants or nukes, and is as cheap, reliable, and dispatchable, wind and solar can fill the bill.

But in addition to those usual metrics for the power market, there's another that we don't talk about very much:  security.

We've had a couple of high-profile hacks on power grids recently.  I'm unconvinced that the software security issues for renewables are any worse than those for fossil fuels or nuclear.  But what if a state or non-state actor embarked on a coordinated sabotage campaign?

It's relatively hard to bring down power lines, and power networks are relatively robust.  Switching stations are small and can be effectively guarded.  Generating plants are already already well guarded, and the cost of attacking them would be high for any organized group of saboteurs.  Dams are hard to destroy without specialized explosives, and they're easy to guard.

Solar and wind farms are kind of a nightmare, though.

First, they're big.  They consume a lot of area.  They require a lot of fencing to secure.  In many cases, the fencing has to accommodate public and private rights of way.  And even if you have the fencing, guarding it will be hugely expensive.

Once you get through the fencing, you can take out solar panels with a hammer.  Or a sand blaster.  Or acid.  In some cases, exploding some sort of corrosive agent over a solar farm could degrade a significant chunk of it all at once.  How hard would it be to rig a couple of drones to spray hydrofluoric acid down a row of solar panels?

Wind farms are a little harder to take out with low-tech sabotage, but they're even more distributed than solar farms.  And wind turbines have much higher power density per localized area.  It doesn't take much explosive on a wind turbine pillar to take out more than a megawatt of nameplate capacity.  And what happens if you fly a drone into a turbine blade, at just the right spot, with just the right hardware, to inflict maximum damage?

Rooftop solar might be a bit more immune from sabotage.  But how many solar panels do you need to take offline before the power company has to make big changes to the external power delivery to a neighborhood?  And I'm still unconvinced that the bulk of residential power is going to come from rooftops, especially in cities.

One of the nice things about coal, gas, and nuclear is that they are generated indoors, with hefty buildings surrounding them, with simple fencing and easy tasks for guards.  Wind and solar must be sited outdoors, with fragile generation mechanisms.  We should think through the security issues carefully.

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