August 14 marked exactly 10 years since the United States suffered its worst power outage in history. On that day, an overgrown tree near Cleveland sparked a rolling blackout that cut off power to 50 million people in the Northeast, crippling transportation and causing $10 billion in damages to the economy.
Largely because of this incident, the past decade has been rife with talk about the energy infrastructure in the United States, also referred to as the power grid. Many believe the system needs a complete overhaul, replacing the current structure with what's commonly called a smart grid. Others simply think the system needs to be enlarged. Regardless of what side of the fence you land on, one thing is for certain — something has to change.
What is the power grid?
In the early 1900s there were more than 4,000 utilities operating independently. Most used low-voltage wires to transport electricity from a nearby power plant to local homes. At the time, electricity was not widely used. However, as it started to gain popularity, especially after World War II, utilities began to interconnect their transmission systems. This collaboration allowed utilities to build larger generators and share the weight of electricity loads. As demand continued to grow, utilities built high-voltage wires to transport power over long distances. This web of poles and wires was coined "the power grid."
You might be surprised to learn there are actually three power grids operating in the continental United States. The Eastern Interconnect System provides power for states east of the Rocky Mountains. The Western Interconnected keeps the lights on in the area between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains. And the Texas Interconnected System serves counties across Texas. For the most part, these grids operate separately from each other, however, a limited number of connections exist among them.
Problems facing the U.S. power grids
- U.S. growth
The power grid envisioned in the 1900s was not built for the massive population that now lives in the United States. It's stretched to capacity. According to the U.S. Department of Energy only 668 new miles of interstate transmission wires have been added since 2000. With little growth of the infrastructure and an ever increasing population, the grid as it stands today may not be able to keep the lights on forever. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association's 2013 Annual Energy Outlook report, the total U.S. energy consumption will grow by almost 1 trillion kWh by 2040.But population growth isn't the only factor. When the power grid was last updated, the Internet, cellphones and many electronic devices didn't exist. Now, technology runs the world and its use is only likely to increase with innovations. According to the DOE, electronic devices, appliances and equipment will make up 60 percent of the electricity load by 2015.
The Washington Post reports issues with the current power grid are costing Americans approximately $150 billion each year. Though the maintenance costs have increased by 43 percent since 2002, the grid is getting more unreliable with increasing blackouts each year. Part of the problem is the age of the grid. Much of the technology that holds it together is 50 to 70 years old. After millions of people were left without power after Superstorm Sandy many people are pushing for a change in the country's energy infrastructure.
- Cost of upgrades
With advancements in technology updating the power grid is a definite possibility — but it comes at a price. According to a study done by the Electric Power Research Institute, creating a smart grid could cost up to $476 billion over the next 20 years. A smart grid is essentially a computerized version of the grid already in place; it will be able to communicate with the utility and may even diagnose and solve problems, such as power outages.Utilities are likely to be stuck with a large chunk of the bill, which could impact consumers' energy costs. But the country is likely to recoup those costs and then some with the benefits provided by the system. The EPRI's reports the smart grid could provide up to $2 trillion in benefits over a 20-year period, such as power reliability, integration of renewable energy, stronger cybersecurity and reduced electricity demand.
So what's changing?
With many making doomsday claims that it's only a matter of time before the current electricity grid stops working, it's important to take a look at the progress being made on the grid today. The Department of Energy is tasked with modernizing the energy infrastructure. It has a plan to roll out a smart grid in phases, completing the process, the DOE says, in about a decade. The agency says while it has an idea of what the grid will entail, it expects new technologies to change and shape the outcome of the smart grid.
For now, many states have implemented laws requiring that smart meters be installed at all homes and business, which should eventually link to a smart grid. A smart meter is a digital technology to replace current meters. It will replace meter readers by electronically transmitting energy consumption data to the utility. It can also immediately notify the utility of a power outage.