Our Power Grid Is Failing. What We Can Do About It?

Our current power grid is basically a giant firehose of electricity going from power plants to your house. But what if it were efficient, two-way, and let you use your neighbor's solar panels? That's the SMART GRID! Sup guys, Trace here. In 2003, a tree limb touched a high-voltage power line in Ohio causing a cascading blackout that stretched across the northeast from New York to Chicago and as far north as Ottawa, Canada. 50 million people were without power for as long as two days. The estimated cost: six billion dollars and 11 lives. You could blame the tree branch, the people in Ohio who should have trimmed it, or even the faulty alarm system, but really we should blame ourselves. The North American power grid is… well it's a mess.

In 1882, Thomas Edison built the first commercial power grid in New York City, introducing the idea of electricity distribution. Now, almost 140 years later, it's been built ad-hoc… jury-rigged into two major grids: the Eastern and Western Interconnection, and three minor grids: Texas, Alaska, and Quebec Interconnections. Together they comprise 1 TRILLION dollars of hard work for public and private groups, all to provide power to the U.S. and Canada. And it's dumb. Right now, our power grid provides 830 gigawatts of electricity to more than 330 million people, and yet, there's no storage system. Dumb. If you flip on your lightswitch, the local power plant has to ramp up production, just a bit, to power that light. Also, all the power flows one way, from generators, to stations, to your house, like an electricity firehose. Dumb. If something breaks, they can't just run power around the problem, they have to drive out, find it, and fix it. Things like this are immensely frustrating for utilities, regulators, governments, and you and me. Which is why we need a smart grid.

A smart grid is to the current dumb grid as the newest smartphone is to Zach Morris' massive beige brick-thing. Actually, no. Zack's phone was still sweet. Our grid is not. The smart grid basically adds internet-connected computers to the mix. The utility company sends power AND information to the houses, and then the houses send info back to tell it how it's doing, how much it's using and also where the power is coming from. On top of that, if you have solar power on your roof, or wind power or whatever… and the power goes out, the grid will know you're okay, and even ask you to help power homes and facilities nearby — like traffic lights or emergency services! Computers at every point on the grid would know where they are in relation to privately-owned home batteries or solar panels, and they'd be able to communicate with them too! This internet-connected grid could revolutionize how power is generated and distributed and make the whole trillion-dollar mess more efficient.

Right now, 6.1 percent of all power is lost as the electricity physically runs through the lines, heating them up and generating noise. That's about 19-and-a-half BILLION dollars disappearing just from lines themselves. With computers talking back and forth to the utilities everyone would know second-by-second to only route power as needed… perhaps from local storage or solar: rather than burning coal far away because one guy is watching TV. It might seem obvious, but this means good things for companies, people, even the environment. For example, if the grid knew there were batteries available, the power plants wouldn't need to burn as much coal. Or, if the grid knew it was windy or sunny, it could pull from the local renewable farms! You could even, as a consumer, CHOOSE to only use power from local storage or charge your car when the cost was lower. Honestly, it sounds like a crazy nerdy dream.

Which is sort of where we are now… Countries all over the world are trying to get their citizens excited about this new smart infrastructure, but it's hard, and expensive. Ultimately, the smart grid will save money, but it will also help us use distributed power generation, and help the environment by eliminating waste and encouraging people to understand more about how they're using their own electricity. Go Planet! Sponsor? If you're coming out of this thinking, wait, but if the grid is so crazy NOW, how does it even work? You're in luck, my friend! Remember that blackout during the Superbowl? We looked into how the power grid worked after that! Check it out! Do you want to put solar panels on your roof? Get a battery for your house? Only use renewables? Really into coal?.