The electrical grid is something most people give little or no thought to. But it was a major topic in the news following the blackout of August 2003, the largest in North American history, which affected tens of millions of people through the northeast and Midwest (The Clean Tech Revolution, p. 172). And now both presidential candidates have said that the nation’s power grid needs major investment. (See Obama’s energy plans here and McCain’s here.)
A Portrait of the Grid
The system for generating, transmitting and distributing electrical power in this country is impressively large, and impressively old. According to “Grid 2030,” a 2003 report by the US Department of Energy Office of Electric Transmission and Distribution, the power system in the US consists of
- 3100 utilities
- 2100 non-utility power producers, including independent power companies and customer-owned distributed energy facilities
- 10,000 power plants
- 157,000 miles of high voltage electric transmission lines
Most of existing electrical capacity is 30 or more years old.
According to the report, between 1990 and 2003 electricity demand increased by 25%; but construction of transmission facilities decreased about 30%. Aging equipment and a shortage of new capacity result in congestion on the grid. This results in higher power costs because customers can’t access lower-cost electricity supplies. And pushing transmission lines close to capacity increases line losses—wasted electricity that never arrives at its destination. Aging and inadequate equipment can increase the likelihood of outages, which cost the economy anywhere from $26 billion to $180 billion per year according to some estimates. (See one cited in the Grid 2030 report.)
A Vision of the Electric Grid of the Future
Compared to the current grid, with its aging architecture, technology and performance, visions of what the grid could be and could do for the economy are downright futuristic. The Grid 2030 project, for example, envisioned
a fully automated power delivery network that monitors and controls every customer and node, ensuring a two-way flow of electricity and information between the power plant and the appliance, and all points in between. Its distributed intelligence, coupled with broadband communications and automated control systems, enables real-time market transactions and seamless interfaces among people, buildings, industrial plants, generation facilities, and the electric network.
Interestingly, the grid is viewed not just as a power distribution platform but also an information distribution platform. The two-way flow of information over the grid is what can make the grid smart, enabling coordination, adaptation and automation. The vision entails incorporating the entire country into a unified system that could optimize the generation and distribution nationwide, making the most efficient use of power and thus keeping costs low.
According to the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, a smart electrical grid
- Self-Heals [PDF-244KB]
A self-healing modern grid detects and responds to routine problems and quickly recovers if they occur, minimizing downtime and financial loss.
- Motivates and Includes the Consumer [PDF-693KB]
With a modern grid, commercial, industrial and residential energy consumers will have visibility into prices and the ability to choose a program and a price that best suits their needs.
- Resists Attack [PDF-264KB]
Security is built in from the ground up in a modern grid.
- Provides Power Quality for 21st Century Needs [PDF-859KB]
A modern grid provides electricity free of sags, spikes, disturbances and interruptions. It is suitable to the data centers, computers, electronics and robotic manufacturing that will power our future economy.
- Accomodates All Generation and Storage Options [PDF-430KB]
A modern grid allows plug-and-play interconnection to practically any source of power, including renewable energy sources and storage.
- Enables Markets [PDF-204KB]
A modern grid supports consistent operation from coast to coast while allowing innovation locally and regionally.
- Optimizes Assets and Operates Efficiently [PDF-422KB]
A modern grid allows us to put more power through existing systems, build less new infrastructure and spend less to operate and maintain the grid.
If this all seems futuristic, it is largely because of the contrast with the rudimentary system we have in place today. But ideas have been circulating for decades about the benefits of improving the electrical grid. Thirty-five years ago Buckminster Fuller envisioned a global power grid that could make more efficient use of scarce resources and increase human well being:
This now feasible, intercontinental network would integrate America, Asia and Europe, and integrate the night-and-day, spherically shadow-and-light zones of Planet Earth. And this would occasion the 24-hour use of the now only fifty per cent of the time used world-around standby generator capacity, whose fifty per cent unused capacities heretofore were mandatorily required only for peakload servicing of local non-interconnected energy users. Such intercontinental network integration would overnight double the already-installed and in-use, electric power generating capacity of our Planet. (Quoted here.)
Even the more down-to-earth vision articulated by the Department of Energy relies on new technologies. But many of them are commercially viable today. In my next post, I’ll look at what some of those technologies are.