GRID2.0: Why Upgrade?

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Our various electrical grids have been built, rebuilt, and patched up in an ongoing process that began when electric power first began to be generated well over a century ago.  Of course plenty of new power plants and transmission towers have been patched into the existing infrastructure since those early days, and the costs of maintaining these have been paid for (repeatedly) by ratepayers who would presumably like to benefit from these fully amortized assets (at least for awhile) before incurring any new costs, or adding to already enormous public debts. So why exactly should anybody be bothered to consider the staggering expenses of undertaking a major upgrade of our various electrical grids at this particular point in history?

Most people are in fact much more interested in the development of newenergy (re)sources, rather than in understanding the boring details of delivering existing electricity into our homes and commercial spaces, so why worry about the distribution of power in a ‘smart’ electrical grid, when the old grid seems to be doing an adequate job ?

The truth is that since the Grid is largely based in the same underlying design principals that have surprisingly changed very little in the past century, most public utilities are running on crumbling infrastructure, that requires constant maintenance by powerworkers, and clever engineering patches to keep it all even basically operational.  The fact that there are all sorts of efficiencies that can be derived through upgrades can easily fall on deaf ears since you can say the same about so much modern infrastructure.  What makes this worse is that unlike ravaged roadways, or failing water systems, electricity either works of it doesn’t. So unless ti fails, everyone presumes that things are being adequately maintained. Most people would already be too mind-boggled by the cooperative complexities, and industrial technologies that somehow combine to seamlessly to provide us with this key resource today, that the future needs seem more speculative than actually necessary.

Pop-Open “The Trouble With Electricity” to learn more about these hidden challenges

There are all sorts of reasons for why North America in general (and Quebec to a lessor and certainly more distinct sense) is long overdue for a major overhaul of it’s transmission and distribution grid. The primary reasons for this suddenly becoming a current and pressing issue is not only that the entire distribution model needs to be changed to eliminate growing instabilities, but also to  accommodate feed-in power from small renewable sources. This new “open market” for Supply is colliding head-on with the old (current model) that is based on competitive grids  and rigid vertical monopolies that date back to how electricity was first developed as a Consumer service…Here’s a quick rundown of how history is now working against us:

  • Thomas Edison’s vertically integrated model, created rigid structures that Utilities modeled themselves after to begin with. Thanks God Tesla’s AC prevailed at least, and saved us from a fully proprietary Edison model for power distribution and consumption!
  • Large State owned Utilities required and demanded monopolistic charters to bring power to the people.
  • As demand spread, new systems were created to be vertically self sufficient using their own generation capacity, and only connected with other utilities/grids for the sake of backup in any emergencies where capacity couldn’t be met.
  • Utilities served captive markets with set pricing, and their power supply was cheap, so there was no reason to maintain their grids for the sake of added efficiencies.
  • In 1978 the big Utilities were forced to buy from Federally subsidized independent producers, and thus were dis-incented from optimizing value for any 3rd party suppliers with upgrades to their grid.
  • In 1992 transmission lines were ordered to open up to transmission lines to all suppliers and cross-utility carriers, and many Utilities got out of the generation business entirely, and instead started brokering power from cheaper distant sources, and placing greater demands on the under-designed and built interconnecting systems.
  • Interconnected and cross-brokered Systems allowed for power to be bought and sold across many boundaries, but paying for local upgrades would create efficiencies that could easily benefit competing utilities instead,as their power was carried across any upgraded systems or transmission lines.
  • State voters feared that the costs of such upgrades would raise local taxes while benefiting out-of-state interests, and non-taxpayers.
  • Increasingly complex bureaucracy, especially at the Federal level (Energy Regulatory Commission) was stiffing development with it’s red tape, and various legal challenges (NIMBY advocates, and various forms of land claims).
  • Federal Regulators clashed with State Authorities who refused to cede power, and instead further scuffled bureaucratic processes.
  • These modern challenges have resulted in less than 700 miles of new transmission capacity actually being installed in past decade.
  • Many more intermediate players and agencies have made it clearly necessary that a more open system is desperately required.

This ongoing erosion of the interconnected power grids has progressed even while demand continues to mount, and place added burdens on the  existing systems. Outages have actually been increasing for decades now, with U.S. estimates placing the losses at 150 Billion per year! All while demand is expected to continue rising by 40% over next 20 years.

Adding in even more baseload generation capacity for millions of electric cars that will suddenly need to be charged up, and factor in a wide gamut of renewable sources trying to trickle their value into the system, and we can quickly see why this patchwork of competitive systems built on aging technology is a national disaster just waiting to happen!

“For God’s sake…We contribute less to R&D than the pet food industry does!”

– Jeffrey Byrone of  the California Energy Commission comments on spending less than 2% on R&D

This sad state of affairs culminated in the 2003 blackout where the Ohio utility that started the cascading failure wasn’t even able to gauge power in it’s own lines as things fell apart, and had to rely on phone calls to the State Regulators in order to monitor the mess they started.

Looking forward though, we can take heart in the enormous benefits that can be derived from upgrading to a “smarter” electrical grid. We’ve also recently learned that half of Obama’s record setting 40 billion Energy Stimulus package will be going towards grid upgrades…But how these upgrades will be made when there are a wide variety of options already on the table?

Ironically, the Utilities have to finally face up to the same bureaucratic, business, and political issues that kept them vertically isolated from one another during their early stages of development. Perhaps their common need to survive through innovation will help determine the common standards and emerging protocols for a smart grid that will carry America into the Future.

While we work up more information on all the exciting technical possibilities that could become real in a forthcoming major upgrade of our electric grids, please join us in exploring the Social Impact of GRID2.0 at the link below…

GRID2.0 The Social Challenges of Energy

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  1. 16/10/2011 at 10:50 PM

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