America’s electric grid is often called the most complex machine in the world. That’s not a stretch when you think about what it does. It runs your refrigerator and charges your phone, all from a ray of sunshine, a lump of coal, falling water or a prairie breeze.
In between those starting and ending points are 160,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines; millions of miles of low-voltage power lines; 7,300 power plants; nearly 200,000 electric utility employees; and thousands of electrical substations and transformers that adjust voltage for the cross-country trip along transmission lines before entering your home or business. All these parts must work together to keep power flowing safely.
For all its complexity, the electric grid can be described as having three major parts: a power source, such as a hydroelectric dam, natural gas plant or wind turbine; the wires and equipment that deliver power; and a home or business that receives the power.
The electric grid must adapt to weather patterns, cybersecurity threats, consumer expectations and decentralized power sources—big changes for a vast and intricate system. Here are four ways it is adapting.
Resilience in the Face of Severe Weather
2020 was the busiest recorded hurricane season along the Atlantic Coast. Wildfires were increasingly intense, especially in the West, and ice storms and cold weather surprised the South. These changes call for new ways to make sure the lights stay on.
Electric utilities are increasing grid resilience by integrating weather forecasting with other smart technologies that monitor electric current and determine how to respond. By knowing how weather affects equipment, crews can quickly redirect the flow of electricity, minimizing the duration of an outage.
Cybersecurity measures have become standard operating procedure for utilities to protect against cyberattacks. Electric utilities work closely with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to monitor and strengthen defenses. Consumer-members are urged to protect themselves from hackers. When printers and smart TVs connect to the internet, they become part of the electric grid.
More Power to Consumers
Many utilities have voluntary programs that manage electric loads by turning off water heaters or air conditioners for a short time. These programs add another layer of coordination. Additionally, some homeowners with solar panels on their roofs or in their backyards sell excess electricity back to the utility over the electric grid.
Keeping Up With Change
Large fields of wind farms and solar power arrays require transmission lines to new locations—and planning for a kind of power that might only operate when the sun shines or the wind blows. These changes are necessary and helpful, but also expensive.
Annual spending on the U.S. transmission system increased from $9 billion a year in 2002 to $40 billion in 2019. That investment to increase the robustness of the grid is paying off. According to the Energy Information Administration, Americans experienced an average of about eight hours of power interruptions in 2017, but five hours in 2019.
Unlike the Lower 48 states, Alaskans are not linked to large, interconnected grids. The Railbelt electrical grid stretches from Fairbanks through Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula and provides roughly 79% of the state’s electrical energy. However, Alaska has more than 150 islanded, stand-alone electrical grids serving rural villages.