Communities along the vulnerable Outer Banks usually lose electric power because of a so-called act of God – natural events usually in the form of a tropical storm, a hurricane or deep freeze. But this time, power was lost on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands because of an act of man: Workers building the new Bonner Bridge accidentally severed the electric transmission lines that deliver electricity to southern portions of the Outer Banks.
Blackouts caused by acts of God and acts of man could be be greatly reduced by eliminating the islands’ total dependence on power transmitted from elsewhere. The outage at the height of the tourist season is a vivid illustration of why electric grids need to become two-way systems in which power flows out from power plants and flows in from sources of renewable energy. If the Hatteras and Ocracoke islands generated enough of their own electricity through wind and solar power, the impact of losing a connection to the main transmission lines would have been greatly reduced.
Having Outer Banks towns derive their electric power from the very natural forces that make them appealing as resorts may sound like science fiction, but the technology is here. Indeed, Ocracoke is part of a pilot project of the N.C. Electric Membership Corp. and the Tideland Electric Membership Corp. testing a freestanding, battery-powered microgrid that can operate independently of the main grid.
Building up and expanding such technology is only a matter of political will and investment. Consider how many millions of dollars were lost by the shutdown of the lower Outer Banks economy because of the severed transmission lines. An investment on that scale in renewable energy could keep such an extended power interruption from happening again. Harnessing enough renewable energy to power all the Outer Banks may be many years away, but it makes sense to start moving aggressively toward that goal.
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The values of creating a decentralized, two-way grid applies to more than isolated beach communities. It’s good for all communities and for the planet. Renewable energy can be generated anywhere the wind blows or the sun shines, and the power can be used right where it’s created. That means fewer power interruptions and less burning of fossil fuels. In the Outer Banks blackout, it’s time to see that light.