Our intricate power grid

November 20, 2008 | By | Reply More

There’s been some talk lately about the need to upgrade our power grid. How complicated is our power grid? Consider this quote from “Upgrading the Grid,” from the July 31, 2008 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers):

The power flowing through the stadium lights cannot actually be traced back to a single generator; it comes from the common flow of energy fed by all the generators. (Think of dipping a bucket into a reservoir fed by many rivers: it pulls up water from all of them.) So the grid has to be managed as an integrated whole. Yet the grid is also a hodgepodge: in much of the world it has been “integrated” over the decades by patching together small, local grids as the opportunities arose. And the energy pulsing through that hodgepodge can be downright willful. If a transmission line goes dead, the electricity will spontaneously reroute itself along any other path it can find. So if there aren’t a lot of redundancies in the system-as often happens these days–and if the extra power moves to other lines that are already near capacity, those lines might also overload and shut down. This can lead to still more shutdowns, an ever-increasing chain reaction that becomes a region-wide blackout. Or maybe not . . . Even the grid’s normal operation is difficult to predict. All the current computer simulations are lousy . . .  In short, humanity has come close to building a machine that is so intricate that it can’t be comprehended.

Talk about complex systems! Therefore, we have built an electrical system that can’t be comprehended, to go along with our economic, educational, military, and numerous other systems we have built that are now so complex that we can’t understand them either.

What’s the solution to our incomprehensible power grid problems?  An “ever-expanding cornucopia of new technologies: Smart appliances, dynamic pricing, micro-generation, energy storage, [and] built-in protective responses.”

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Category: Energy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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