You know what blows my mind?
Passing a piece of metal through a magnetic field creates magic.
What does the magic trick look like?
The output of that simple maneuver creates precise energy which can be transported over vast distances near the speed it takes for photons to go from your table lamp to your eye when you flip your wall switch.
When we make some toast, charge our laptops, or sit back and enjoy movies on tv, few of us consider the complex network of generating stations, substations, and transmission lines that make things go.
Even fewer consider the symphony of maintenance, modernization, and controls necessary to keep the grid working the way it is supposed to.
Increased demands on the quantity and quality of power from the grid are stressing this vital infrastructure.
Back when the country was first electrified, electrical service was limited to DC current provided to relatively small “cohesive electrical zones.” Once the benefits of electrification were recognized, the system expanded and current switched to AC, allowing the power to be generated in one location and then transmitted over great distance to be consumed in another.
The system grew and economies of scale saw electricity costs decline for the better part of a century. Then, a lag in demand, rising fuel costs, and environmental regulations ushered in an age of “reduced-cost business models” for electric companies.
Since 1970, efforts have been made to restore the make-it-cheaper-so-people-can-by-more-of-it business ideal.
Grid administration has been competitively restructured, inviting the “invisible hand” of market economics to match electrical supply with demand across the country.
In the midst of this competitive restructuring, also known as deregulation, grid infrastructure has deteriorated and failed to keep pace with the changing demands of electrical consumers.
Electrical loads have proliferated, and modern digital technology requires more precise power technology.
“Cascading outages” result when one part of the grid shuts down and excess power overloads other parts of the grid, much like your hair-dryer can overload your circuit breaker.
In August of 2003, one such cascading blackout occurred here in the United States. It is a testament to the integrity of the system that the blackouts only lasted for a matter of hours.
Nevertheless, local economies felt the pinch and people got trapped in elevators.
The grid needs to be restructured to prevent electrical disruptions like that one from happening. As we use more and more power, without a national “smarter” grid, blackouts like the one in 2003 might seem like a flash in the pan.
Such restructuring could include highly conductive transmission lines with lightweight carbon fiber cores.
To me though, the most exciting solution is distributing electricity generation across millions of rooftops instead of relying on single sources.
We can still meet electrical demand with all these small scale power plants close to the load, rather than a handful of large ones separated by miles of transmission lines which are subject to power loss bleeds.
Solar panels for your home provide such an alternative to centralized generation.
Just as there’s now more emphasis on learning where are food is coming from, we need to have a more intimate relationship with our national electricity production.
To me, solar panels on every roof sounds a lot better than a coal turbine in every finished basements.
Last modified: July 25, 2017