Delivering the Juice


Right Side News has an interesting piece from Diane M. Grassi on the current condition of the U.S. electric grid.

For over 70 years, federal laws have played a vital and critical role in the operation, production, distribution and protection of the US electrical power grid. Federal laws in concert with state laws and regulations have necessarily dictated that the power grid be shielded from market manipulation and criminal behavior.

But as the nearly 100 year old power grid has aged, facing a growing population and higher load demands for power, the industry has simultaneously become more and more deregulated by mandate. And deregulation has led to less and less necessary preventative maintenance, upgrades in technology as well as necessary investment in research and development. And the poorly maintained grid in many of the areas of the country, predominantly the mid-Atlantic and northeast states, has but put even more stress upon its transmission lines.

The basic structure of the North American transmission system is made up of over 140 control centers and approximately 3500 utility providers covering over 200,000 miles. Utility generating plants, transmission and sub-transmission systems, distribution systems and customer loads travel over a two-part power grid; one in the east and one in the west. Texas has its own grid.

Compounding the vast network and intricacy of the grid is the interconnectivity and delivery of power that in many cases is incompatible with widely varying levels of equipment integrity, data systems and personnel training. It is the secondary system which supplies the distribution of electricity to consumers, where most of the power failures occur, and that which require time to repair. And the network of sub-stations feeding electricity to neighborhoods, via feeders which flow to transformers, is where supposed problems arise during local outages, further exacerbated by non-maintained equipment.

But although deregulation of the utility industry began over two decades ago, it was the 1992 Energy Policy Act which changed the way electricity was sold to local consumers for the first time. Energy companies were permitted to install their own plants and sought customers throughout the country, but not necessarily in the same geographic region. Energy brokers then entered into the picture and utilized the open market to buy and sell power. And thus began the potential unreliability of energy delivery.

Purchasing power from plants hundreds of miles away from a respective region put unprecedented burdens upon the transmission system, raising the likelihood of power failures at the local level. Most importantly, the electrical grid, as it was originally envisioned, was never designed to absorb the transmission of high voltage capacity across the continent, and especially in absence of comparable and upgraded systems in place.

I’ve written about the shortcomings of the current electric grid, with regard to the large-scale addition of wind power. Stated simply, the grid wasn’t built for intermittent energy sources. If we expect to get more of our electricity from wind and solar power — in the absence of commercial-scale electricity storage – then the grid will have to be modernized, in part by interconnecting the various regional grids with high-voltage transmisssion lines. For a detailed look at this possibility, check out The Million-Volt Answer to Oil from the Manhattan Institute’s Peter Huber.


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