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Getting Real with ‘The Grid’

You’ve all heard about “the grid,” which has become the common term for describing our fantastically complex network for delivering electricity from providers to users. It’s not unusual for someone to approach me after I’ve given a keynote speech or presentation and tell me that we could solve all of our energy problems if we just modernized our national grid. In a sense, that is true. But it’s not especially helpful.

There are multiple power transmission grids or “interconnections” in North America. These grids are synchronous, which means they all deliver power at the same frequency, 60 Hz. Because they are synchronous, they can share power and serve as backups when there are overloads.

But there is no single “grid” covering North America. Strictly speaking, the grid isn’t an official entity – the grid is everything that generates, distributes and consumes electricity. The grid is us – it is inseparable from our modern culture. Everyone who makes, sells or uses electricity in any way, shape or form is part of the grid.

So when someone tells me, “We need to reform the grid,” it’s a lot like hearing someone say, “We need to reform our healthcare system.” Where do you begin? Do you tear everything down and start from scratch, or do you tinker around the edges and make small improvements wherever you can? How much change is too much, and how much is too little? Who is ultimately responsible and who shoulders the costs?

These aren’t easy questions. The grid isn’t something that arose fully formed after years of rigorous analysis, thorough testing and meticulous planning. The grid expanded organically, with minimal supervision. For better and for worse, the grid is our offspring. We are its parents and we are ultimately responsible for it.

The grid serves a geographic area of extraordinary size and amazing diversity. Because of its scale and complexity, the grid resists simple solutions. That’s one of the reasons we’re still burning coal and kerosene to generate electricity in some parts of our nation. Solving the grid’s problems might be easier if there was a central authority that could harmonize all of its various. But apart from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), no such overarching authority exists.

Another major obstacle to grid modernization is ignorance. For most of us, the physics of electricity is not a topic of daily conversation. When we think about electricity, we typically imagine it as a substance that moves through wires. But it’s not a substance – it’s a form of electromagnetic radiation, a wave traveling at nearly the speed of light. Unlike familiar commodities such as soybeans, corn, eggs and even crude oil, electricity is consumed moments after it’s produced. It’s certainly one of the most perishable products we use.

And there are legitimate reasons for relying on multiple sources of energy to produce the continuous flow of electricity we need to sustain our lives and our economies. Inconsistent and variable sources such as wind and solar cannot provide the quantity and quality of electricity required by heavy industry. The same goes for hospitals, datacenters, food processing plants, military bases and other facilities where losing power would be catastrophic.

We cannot simply say to millions of Americans that they won’t have any electricity for two or three days because the wind isn’t strong enough or the sunshine is blocked by clouds. That’s not how our culture works.

I purposely used the word “culture” because I firmly believe that our grid has become synonymous with our culture. When we flip a switch, we expect the lights to go on. When we turn on an air conditioner, we expect the room to get cooler. When we put a grievously ill patient on a ventilator, we expect the ventilator to pump oxygen and to extend the patient’s life.

But the costs of variable energy sources are plummeting, making them realistic alternatives to traditional sources such as natural gas and coal. Wind and solar are now eminently viable choices; and with every passing day, the economic argument in their favor grows stronger.

This blog post is excerpted from Elena Cahill’s new upcoming book, POWER ECONOMICS: An Executive’s Guide to Energy Efficiency, Conservation, and Generation Strategies (Wiley, 2021). You can purchase or download copies of the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wiley and other online booksellers.

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