Last night the power went off. This July was the hottest on record here in Seattle, and likely around the world. Without the air conditioner, sleep would be difficult. It wasn’t long before I was headed for the fuse box, but it wasn’t a breaker switch. The power to our home was out and so were the street lights. The grid was down…again. But the evening was calm. What happened?
The U.S. power grid is an antique. Most of it is well beyond the design life of its components. It spills energy at every step from generation to distribution. It is vulnerable to cascading collapses that shut down power miles from the point of failure.
Every year, more is spent on repair and maintenance, leaving less in the budget for expansion. In many regions, the grid is a bottleneck, controlling power availability regardless of resource supply. If this were to keep up, eventually demand would outstrip available supply and the entire economy and welfare of the country would come to a halt.
Here’s what a classic Power Delivery System looks like. It has six stages:
- Obtaining the energy source (commodity) used for generation and trading.
- Substation generation where voltage is increased to transmission levels.
- Transmission via high voltage lines.
- Distribution substation where transformers lower voltages to distribution levels.
- Transmission at lower voltages to the customer.
- Energy is consumed by the customer.
These power delivery system components are referred to as the value chain.
Let’s look where delivery value is lost from an efficiency perspective. If we use coal as our energy source, we find that about 65 percent of energy units are lost in the generation process. About 4.8 percent is lost in transmission. Roughly 5.1 percent is lost in distribution. That leaves only about 25 percent for the consumer. (Figures via U.S. Department of Energy.)
Most of the 25 percent reaching the consumer is also wasted through poor insulation, energy management and inefficiency.
Most of the U.S. grid is now a century old. It has about 17,000 generating units, with an average age of 50 years. The high voltage transmission system covers over 164,000 miles, with transformers averaging about 42-years-old.
An interesting note here is that these transformers have a design lifespan of about 40 years.
The lower voltage distribution system to the consumer covers about three million miles.
The entire system is vulnerable to four major problems. The first three are: Equipment failure from fatigue and damage (e.g. snow, ice, flooding, storms); obsolescence; and cyberattack. The fourth problem is an inconsistent regulatory environment that hinders strategic fiscal planning by utilities. All of these are increased because of climate change and consequently increasing consumer energy demands.
Note: Most industries and utilities accept regulatory oversight as necessary. The greatest complaint is inconsistency as political winds shift. That regulatory inconsistency makes fiscal and strategic planning difficult.
The Solution: A Smarter Grid
In the economic equation, consumer energy demand pulls supply behind it. The grid infrastructure is holding back our ability to sustain development and competitiveness, provide resilience to external factors (e.g. climate change, extreme events) and provide energy security to our existing economy.
All of these factors create a situation that is not sustainable. The power industry is evolving toward a smarter, more efficient grid. This is accomplished by increasing transmission and transfer efficiency; optimizing equipment and assets (i.e. energy sources, transformers, highly trained staff); smarter end-to-end control monitoring and cyber security. The last factor is customer engagement.
What is a “smarter grid?” One that intelligently and rapidly responds to the behavior and actions of the consumer, and is resilient to unprecedented contingencies of an unstable climate future. This modern electrical grid has an improved transmission and distribution infrastructure that supplies reliable and secure power to meet present and future growth.
It isn’t a matter of inconvenience when our air conditioning goes out. An outdated and insecure grid means more power outages, wasted energy resources and net losses to the economy.