Planning for Surprises

Winter 2010

Although electricity demand in the U.S. has increased by about 25 percent since 1990, construction of transmission facilities during that same time decreased by nearly a third. Congested transmission paths leading to electricity bottlenecks are becoming increasingly prevalent, resulting in (among other things) an inability to take parts of the system offline for proper maintenance, thus increasing the likelihood of unplanned outages.

More transmission lines are urgently needed, but the question then becomes, where to put them? “If you build for just one vision of the future and something else happens, you find yourself having to adapt,” says the Whiting School’s Ben Hobbs, who holds the Theodore M. and Kay W. Schad Professorship in Environmental Management. He notes that the future of energy is notoriously difficult to predict. “There has been this long-held belief that alternate energy sources were going to come online, chiefly through solar power. But in the last 10 years it’s all been on-shore wind power. That wasn’t anticipated.”

Planning for an efficient electric grid system means being able to predict not only where demand will be greatest but also where the electricity will come from. But with greenhouse gas concerns, the fluid nature of use, and evolving electrical-generation technology, no one can be certain what exactly the future will bring. “What if people suddenly get stiff-necked about building wind turbines everywhere? What if we get a whole lot of electric vehicles on the road that need charging from the grid every night? If you misplace transmission lines you can perhaps even endanger the reliability of the system.”

One key advantage of combining theoretical and practical research in a center like the one proposed at Hopkins is that this combination would provide means of anticipating future needs. “When we look at the energy system over the next 30 years, probably the only thing we can count on is surprise,” Hobbs says. “What knits the vision for this center together is a sophisticated consideration of uncertainty. If we plan the infrastructure we need to consider the full range of possibilities and how we might permit ourselves some flexibility in the future.”