- Investing in renewable energy sources is important for the future of our planet and in keeping the U.S. positioned as a world power, and new grid infrastructure is needed.
- Despite our efforts to increase electricity produced from renewable energy sources, they only produce about 17% of the total U.S. electricity generation.
- Threats from electromagnetic pulse attacks are real, and we are ill prepared as a country to deter such an attack from countries like China that are fully capable of launching one.
We’ve known for years that a move toward renewable energy sources to produce electricity is necessary for many reasons-to combat climate change, reduce air pollution, diversify our energy supply and dependence on imported fuels, and protect the environment, so this land is rich and fertile for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
This conversion can’t happen overnight. It takes money and time to develop and maintain new energy sources while converting existing utilities, safeguarding our electric grids, so they can handle the additional strain, and educating consumers on what they can do to make the switch to renewable energy sources in their homes and lives.
With Biden’s Green Energy Plan committed to reaching a carbon-free energy sector in the U.S. by 2035 and a continued move toward renewable energy solutions to accomplish that, we need to ensure our electric power grid is stable. We are capable of deterring and defending against high-altitude electromagnetic pulse weapons (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) attacks that could threaten our national security.
What’s the Big Deal? Traditional Electricity vs. Renewable Energy Sources
Let’s start with some (very) basic science: Traditional electricity is produced by the rotation of a generator, built with an electromagnetic shaft, within a power plant. The biggest issue with sustainability and environmental impact is how to power the turbine to make the generator spin without simultaneously polluting the environment with unwanted harmful emissions.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), about 70% of electricity produced in the U.S. is powered by steam turbines, most of which rely on coal and natural gas to burn and create the heat necessary for the steam turbines to generate electricity, and along with it carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and heavy metals such as mercury.
While electricity produced from renewable energy sources has continued to increase since 1950, the EIA reports it was only responsible for 17% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2019. Here are the numbers from the most utilized renewable energy sources for 2019 with brief descriptions of each, as reported by the EIA:
- Hydropower plants produced about 7% of total U.S. electricity generation and about 38% of electricity generation from renewable energy. Hydropower plants use flowing water to spin a turbine connected to a generator.
- Wind energy was about 7% of total U.S. electricity generation and about 42% of electricity generation from renewable energy. Wind turbines convert wind energy into electricity.
- Biomass was the source of about 1% of total U.S. electricity generation. Biomass is burned directly in steam-electric power plants. It can be converted to a gas that can be burned in steam generators, gas turbines, or internal combustion engine generators.
- Solar energy provided about 2% of total U.S. electricity. Photovoltaic (PV) and solar-thermal power are the two main types of solar electricity generation technologies. PV conversion produces electricity directly from sunlight in a photovoltaic cell. Most solar-thermal power systems use steam turbines to generate electricity.
Geothermal power plants produced about 0.5% of total U.S. electricity generation. Geothermal power plants use steam turbines to generate electricity.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EAP), the environmental and economic benefits of using renewable energy include:
- Generating energy that produces no greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and reduces some types of air pollution.
- Diversifying energy supply and reducing dependence on imported fuels.
- Creating economic development and jobs in manufacturing, installation, and more.
What Would Conversion to Renewable Energy Look Like?
We know why a move toward renewable energy is necessary, but how do we deploy and adopt a strategy for industries and homes across America to convert, make it affordable for the average consumer, and ensure we are safe from HEMP and HPM warfare?
President Biden’s Green Energy Plan states that he will “…build a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs with prevailing wages and benefits.” Exactly how his administration plans to build this infrastructure remains to be seen, but includes “…public investment in research and collaboration between universities and the private sector,” a promise to create 10 million new clean energy jobs, his Climate Day orders, and a proposed $2 trillion climate plan.
I love my hybrid vehicle. I get excellent gas mileage and feel like I’m doing a little something to cut down on my fuel usage and carbon footprint. However, making the switch to an electric vehicle makes me nervous. I live in small-town-cornfield America, and though we do have more vehicle charging stations than we did a few years ago, I have enough stress ensuring my phone is charged, let alone my car.
The Biden administration’s ideas around getting gas-powered vehicles off the road with a full conversion to electric may be challenging to execute. It’s proven a challenge to convince the average American to give up the gas hog and to make a home energy conversion will be an even greater ask. Unfortunately, we can’t just flip a giant switch or push a big red button to convert our energy sources. It’s going to take time, research, and a lot of collaboration.
A big challenge in making the switch to renewable energy sources is ensuring electrical utilities can accommodate increased usage while maintaining efficiency and reliability in energy distribution. To put it plainly, solar power needs sun, and wind power needs wind, so what happens when there are cloud cover and a still windless day? These sources need a backup, and that’s where traditional electricity saves the day.
This is a simplification, but when self-sustaining energy sources fail on a large scale due to extreme weather, solar storms, or human-made attacks and traditional electricity taps in, the electric grid can become overwhelmed, and people lose power. The impact of turning to more renewable electricity sources also adds to the strain on electric distribution grids. Unless we find a way to overcome these challenges, limits could be placed on renewable power added to these grids, thus impeding the march towards clean energy infrastructure. So, what’s the fix?
One option is for electrical utilities to invest in new technologies like electric voltage regulators made by energy technology companies like AMSC (they are doing some cool stuff with their resilient electric grid system, Dynamic Volt-Amp Reactive systems, and the smaller VVO boxes you may see mounted on electric poles to help with the increased demand for solar-home conversions for example) to help better manage the grid.
The EAP suggests local governments adopt on-site renewable power generation, though this can be difficult to achieve without jumping through regulatory hoops. Another option, and probably the solution we need, is to overhaul the entire system completely, a redesign of grid architecture to prepare America for the future of energy that is changing rapidly, fueled by the need to slow climate change and keep up with the rest of the world.
See what groups like the Electric Reliability Organization for North America and Protect Our Power are doing to make the electric grid more secure and resilient, monitor current and future threats, and help prepare for the evolution of our bulk power system.
Electromagnetic Warfare-Scare Tactic or Legit Threat?
It’s essential to understand the basics of high-altitude electromagnetic pulse weapons (HEMP) and High-Power Microwave (HPM) attacks that could threaten our national security, especially as our country becomes more reliant on electricity as our primary power source. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is an instantaneous, intense energy burst that can overload or disrupt electronics and even our electric grid. They can occur from human-made sources like nuclear weapons and natural occurrences like intense solar flares.
According to a report released by the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force in 2018,
“A high-altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon over the U.S. would incapacitate power grids for weeks if not months. While the ensuing power outage would bring chaos to major metropolitan areas, it would have catastrophic effects on our nuclear power plants…there is currently no civil or military plan to restore power to these facilities. And while the military has standards meant to protect key components from the effects of an electromagnetic pulse, there are many areas where those standards don’t apply or where uncertainties remain.”
Our government has been assessing the threats from EMP for decades. An official Commission to Assess the Threat from High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse was established in 2001, raising issues around what the U.S. is doing to protect both civilian and military infrastructure, how vulnerable we are to smaller-scale attacks, and if other nations are encouraged by U.S. vulnerabilities to develop nuclear weapons, so this is nothing new.
However, what is relatively new is that China now has the first-strike capability, and we have no real deterrent in place. Dr. Peter Pry, executive director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security, says in a recent report that China now has super-EMP weapons, knows how to protect itself against an EMP attack, and has developed protocols to conduct a first-strike attack, even as they deny they would never do so.
Also noteworthy is that in 2018, China outspent the U.S 3 to 1 on renewable energy, making it the leading investor in renewable energy around the world-a trend they have continued year over year. We need to catch up and quickly.
Why this Matters
Though electricity is relatively clean and safe when used, it’s the way we generate and transmit that electricity that is harmful to our planet and why we do need to invest in and develop renewable energy sources and overhaul our electric grid and distribution systems.
With new home solar installations projected to grow 7 percent this year according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie, and the Biden administration’s push toward a renewable energy infrastructure, the U.S. needs to make improvements to the electric grid, so American’s don’t see detrimental disruptions in power distribution as the current grid infrastructure continues to be overburdened, as these types of occurrences undermine the clean energy push that our world needs to slow climate change and global warming.
Conversion to renewable energy sources on a large scale needs to be safe and reliable, or we won’t adapt. As more homes and businesses look to renewable energy sources for electricity, it is evident that our country’s electric grid must be fortified and new grid infrastructure developed.
While preserving the environment for future generations is essential, we must also protect ourselves from potential threats around HEMP and HPM and measures taken to deter such attacks from countries fully capable of launching them.
Samantha DeTurk is a health and science writer for ThinkCivics. Sam graduated cum laude from BSU with a major in Theatre and a minor in Telecommunications and spent her first 5 years post-grad working in the radio industry before joining corporate America as a business consultant for a Fortune 300 HCM leader. When she’s not writing or cooking delicious WFPB cuisine, Sam loves singing, acting, spending time at the lake with her husband and ornery kitty Jasper, and (badly) learning to play her ukulele, The UkuBaby.