Rethinking the Grid

One of the biggest single dollar items in the stimulus package is rethinking the way we deliver energy. According to my uncle, who works on these kind of things, for the most part the electric meter you find on the side of your house is almost identical to the ones you would have found in the late 19th century. He also credits the modern American electric grad as one of the greatest infrastructure achievements of the last century. However, these days the system is in trouble because of (surprise) Congress.

In 1978, Congress began chipping away at the utilities’ dominance by forcing them to buy electricity from independent generation companies that met efficiency goals. Fourteen years later, the government went much further, ordering the utilities to open their transmission lines to all comers.

The result was utter chaos. Many utilities got out of the generation business and morphed into middlemen, shopping for the cheapest power—often from areas with low labor costs and lax environmental oversight—and transporting it hundreds, even thousands, of miles to their customers. This meant using the links between grids, which hadn’t been designed to accommodate such heavy traffic. The grids of distant states thus became closely intertwined, so that an outage in one rural county could affect millions of far-flung customers.

Essentially, no matter how many wind turbines Boone Pickens builds in west Texas, we’re still going to have to figure out a better way to get it to the more populous areas. More about what we can do to modernize the system, including some really interesting power storage technologies like massive fly wheels.