The United States has 18 critical infrastructure systems, and “the other 17” depend on electricity. That was part of the message former CIA director R. James Woolsey sought to convey at the GigaOM Structure Data conference this morning. Because of our reliance on electricity, a single attack on the electric grid could catapult us back into the 1800s, with no effective way to maintain food, water and communications networks.
Unfortunately, the threats to our electric grid are numerous, from hackers, to terrorists, to weather-related phenomena. However, in addition to supporting short-term protective measures, Woolsey takes the long view toward securing the nation’s power infrastructure. In brief, he believes we need to move toward distributed energy generation, putting generation capacity where there’s demand so that we rely less and less on energy transmission over time.
Moving toward distributed energy generation requires a lot of innovation in the near future. We have to improve energy storage and costs, and develop new energy sources to ensure the necessary capacity for our increasingly power-hungry society. Woolsey has a line on that too. As a Venture Partner at Lux Capital, he’s putting his money where his mouth is. The Lux portfolio includes companies working on solar technologies, improved electric conversion processes, natural-gas-based fuels and more.
To protect our electric grid, it turns out that we also need to get smarter about how we run it. This is not just an issue of ramping up security, but of changing the way we distribute power. If we do that, it will help us not only keep the lights on, but the food systems moving, the water running and the communications flowing too.