NatGeo Article Explains the 21st Century Grid

By Vernon Trollinger, July 28, 2010, Energy Efficiency, News

Leave it to the National Geographic to capture the essence of change brought by a modern electrical grid:

“…[T]he first thing a smart grid will do, if we let it, is turn us into savvier consumers of electricity. We’ll become aware of how much we’re consuming and cut back, especially at moments of peak demand, when electricity costs most to produce. That will save us and the utilities money—and incidentally reduce pollution. In a way, we’ll stop being mere passive consumers of electrons. In the 21st century we’ll become active participants in the management of this vast and seemingly unknowable network that makes our civilization possible.

So maybe it’s time we got to know it.”

The article, written by Joel Achenbach, explains the tangled relationships of the North American grid’s electrical interconnects.  By showing how the system began with Thomas Edison, spread during the 1920s and 1930s, and developed into the three independent grid interconnects: Eastern United States, Western United States, and Texas.

As Achenbach points out, the interconnect system is ad hoc — meaning it developed by plugging additions on to it.  There was no overall vision; no real longer term plan.  He calls it a kludge, “an awkward, inelegant contraption that somehow works.”

As a result, grid operators are engaged in a daily balancing act to meet electrical demand.  Too little power in the lines will cause blackouts.  Too much power can over heat transmission lines, causing them to sag enough to brush against tree limbs and short-out… causing a blackout.  Given that the grid is 1960s technology relying on 1920s components, there’s little wonder that small events (like a snake crawling around at a transformer station) can shut down large portions of the system.

A truly smart grid should be capable of reliably transmitting green Texas electricity.  The key to that is to have a grid that is reliable, self-reporting, self-managing and — more unified.  It needs to be flexible to accommodate intermittent power supplies as well as make use of developing storage technologies.  All of which will go far to supplying cheap Texas electricity.

The article appears in the July, 2010 edition of the National Geographic Magazine and features a map (love those NatGeo maps) of the North American electrical grid.  The same article is available on-line with an invaluable interactive map of the North American electrical grid here.

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A native of Wyomissing Hills, PA, Vernon Trollinger studied writing and film at the University of Iowa, later earning his MA in writing there as well. Following a decade of digging in CRM archaeology, he now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, DIY projects, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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