Is Our Electrical Grid Dying?


The Vincent substation along California's State Route 14 is crucial to bringing wind and solar power to the Los Angeles Basin. Photo: Joe McNally

If you think about it, it's a marvel of modern engineering that most of us aren't even aware of "The Grid". Yet it is what made modern life possible. When you watch TV, work on the computer, or even turn the light on, you're using the electricity and that juice comes to your house via the electrical grid.

"The electrical grid is still basically 1960s technology," says physicist Phillip F. Schewe, author of The Grid. "The Internet has passed it by. The meter on the side of your house is 1920s technology." Sometimes that quaintness becomes a problem. On the grid these days, things can go bad very fast.

When you flip a light switch, the electricity that zips into the bulb was created just a fraction of a second earlier, many miles away. Where it was made, you can't know, because hundreds of power plants spread over many states are all pouring their output into the same communal grid. Electricity can't be stored on a large scale with today's technology; it has to be used instantly. At each instant there has to be a precise balance between generation and demand over the whole grid. In control rooms around the grid, engineers constantly monitor the flow of electricity, trying to keep voltage and frequency steady and to avoid surges that could damage both their customers' equipment and their own.

When I flip a switch at my house in Washington, D.C., I'm dipping into a giant pool of electricity called the PJM Interconnection. PJM is one of several regional operators that make up the Eastern grid; it covers the District of Colum bia and 13 states, from the Mississippi River east to New Jersey and all the way down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It's an electricity market that keeps supply and demand almost perfectly matched—every day, every minute, every fraction of a second—among hundreds of producers and distributors and 51 million people, via 56,350 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.

So it should worry you that the grid is sick. America's electrical grid infrastructure is a patchwork of networks built with antiquated equipments. Over decades, this infrastructure has fallen behind the nation's ever-growing demand for electricity. So, how do we fix it? (And for those of you who shout "no more oil" should know that our "addiction" to foreign oil has nothing to do with electricity - oil is predominantly used for transportation, not electricity).

Joel Achenbach of National Geographic wrote a fascinating article about the Electrical Grid (with fantastic photos by Joe McNally): Link - Thanks Marilyn!


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The grid is indeed dying. I have engineered some score of nukes, two score fossil plants, and assessed advanced technologies, e.g. superconductivity, nanotechnology, ultracapcitors for a decade. As noted in the comments, the controls are computerized, and modern. But the basic piping, bearings, furnaces, pressure vessels, etc. are worn out. I have walked past a turbine spinning at 3600 RPM, which had a cracked shaft, seen motors rotted into gravel, and used as built drawings which had no relation to reality (the BP blow out valve problem.)
The smart grid is an economic lie. It carries an unpayable price. The sole future options for the US grid is several hundred coal and nuclear power plants, or no juice. Since we no longer have the engineering talent to build them, my guess is no juice.
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Pretty much every point Schewe makes is incorrect. The electrical grid is one of the most computerized pieces of technology in the world today, at every level. It is designed to get electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed, usually hundreds of miles away, and to do so with increasing efficiency. It is designed to control the amount being generated, based on demand, on a continuous basis. When something goes wrong, it is designed to break apart in to its component subgrids as seamlessly as possible. The grid is not 60s technology, it is 2000's technology. Electric meters are being replaced with smart meters as fast they can be manufactured and installed.

Schewe is talking out his ass.
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"No more oil," may not be particularly relevant, but many of the environmental problems with oil also exist with coal, which is a major source of electricity.

That said, the problem with the gird is somewhat independent of the energy source that generates the electricity. Using big wind farms in empty places to generate electricity for a wide geographic region also requires the grid to get that electricity to where it's needed. There are models of small distributed electrical production that could get around that, but as long as we use the grid system we will need to invest resources to maintain it, even with greater use of alternative energy.
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You think its bad now wait until electric cars become more mainstream. The E Grid was never designed to put up with today's standard usage let alone adding a much bigger need that electric cars will require. But it cost big $ to update the grid. And the electric companies aren't going to pay out of their pockets far the updates. It will come out of us consumers pockets in much higher fees.
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Check out this link for some great maps of the US electrical grid, who knew?
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=110997398
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