The American Power Grid and Electricity - Accent Energy, NY
The American power grid, for all its importance, doesn't get the attention that it deserves. We all know that electricity is generated in big plants and is sent to our homes via wires. The power grid, however, is so much more complicated and important than that. It's also a matter of national safety and security. When American businesses and residences don't have the power they need, lives and property are at risk.
In August 2003, a power company in Ohio suffered three power line failures, putting excessive strain on the regional grid. The systems in surrounding states had trouble coping with the sudden shift in power distribution, causing a cascade effect. Soon, hundreds of thousands of people were in the dark along the East Coast, stretching into Canada. New York City was without power during one of the hottest times of the year, a significant problem. The blackout highlighted some of the vulnerabilities of the system and some of the complications that would result if the grid went down for a longer period of time.
Currently, there are three regional power grids serving the United States. The Eastern Interconnection and Western Interconnection each serve half of the country. Texas, always independent and self-sufficient, has its own power grid, called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
There are three elements in the American power grid: electricity generation, transmission and distribution. In order to keep the system in balance, power companies do their best to match production to demand. When demand is low, at night, for example, power plants produce less electricity. The high number of interconnected power stations ensures redundancy; if one power plant goes down, others will simply produce more electricity to compensate. With these kinds of safety nets, so to speak, American customers receive reliable energy service. Power plants and substations are situated in areas with as low a population density as possible. The high-voltage transmission lines are also laid along sparsely populated corridors.
Above- and underground wires distribute the electricity. Operators must be careful not to overload the system, charged with high-voltage power. Most American homes receive energy at 120 volts, so regional substations must convert the electricity to a lower voltage to be compatible with American appliances. (In Europe, the standard is 240 volts; that's why you need to bring power converters for your electric shaver when you take a trip abroad.)
Power plants and distribution systems are joined at substations. The power flow is regulated by transformers and even mechanical breakers, just like the circuit breakers in your home. When the current is too high, physical levers are thrown, stopping the flow from overwhelming the lines.
A Scientific American article by Matthew L. Wald laid out some suggestions as to how the American power grid could be strengthened. In addition to suggesting greater use of alternative power, including wind and solar, Wald suggests using direct current (DC) instead of alternating current (AC) over some stretches of power line in order to decrease power loss. Instead of employing a state-by-state strategy, Wald believes a coherent national strategy would streamline the country's power distribution, preventing further blackouts in the future.
Regulatory agencies are afraid of more than just simple mistakes. Power plants are also targets for criminals and terrorists. American authorities have done a great deal in recent years to identify likely targets and formulate strong defenses. Just one example: an electrical and computer engineer at The University of Texas at Austin received a large grant in 2005 to figure out how to prevent such attacks and recover from them more quickly.
In the past several years, deregulation has increased the efficiency and reliability of the power grid. When consumers are allowed to choose between several different providers, the multiple companies check and balance each other, ensuring reliability for everyone else. Having multiple generation, transmission and distribution networks reduces the severity of the outage, should one of these fail.
The American power grid will continue to evolve in the coming years, accommodating the increasing amount of green energy produced within our borders. Greater amounts of electricity will be needed to serve the ever-rising American population. Thanks to the efforts of regulatory agencies and power companies, the capacity will be there when you need it.