It's Your Business

Grid Lines

Utilities Prepare to Repave America's Electric Highway

 

by Megan McKoy-Noe, Contributing Writer

 

Imagine a major highway with vehicles all going one way. It’s rush hour — rows of impatient cars try to merge, pushing to reach a final destination. Exits for cities appear, and a steady stream of cars spreads into the countryside.

Electricity today travels across the nation in much the same way — moving from power plants along major transmission arteries until off-ramps deliver it to your local electric cooperative and, finally, your home.

There’s a national push to improve this setup — repave the electric highway, so to speak — to allow for two-way traffic of information. This would be accomplished by two steps: upgrading the physical network of poles and wires to bolster reliability and security, and deploying digital “smart grid” technologies that allow utility staff and equipment on power lines and substations to talk to each other. The ultimate goal: allow electric systems to operate at top efficiency and help consumers make better energy choices to keep bills affordable.

“Modernizing America’s electric system is a substantial undertaking,” stated the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in its report, Grid 2030. “The nation’s aging electro-mechanical electric grid cannot keep pace with innovations in the digital information and telecommunications network. America needs an electric superhighway to support our information superhighway.”

Earth’s Largest Interconnected Machine

A challenge lies before utilities: how to transform a largely mechanical power network into a digital smart grid.

North America’s electric grid may be the largest interconnected machine on earth, consisting of power plants, high-voltage transmission lines, smaller transmission lines, substations, and distribution facilities. But it wasn’t built with a master plan in mind. It was created as needed, one section at a time. As the nation’s electric needs grew, so did the grid.

Today, the electric grid is split into three parts: the Western Interconnection, which reaches from the Pacific to the Rockies; the Eastern Interconnection, which continues to the Atlantic; and the Texas Interconnection, which covers most of the Lone Star State. Plans are under way in Clovis, New Mexico, to connect all three segments, but today they remain fairly isolated.

The grid includes approximately 3,000 utilities and other entities operating 10,000 power plants, according to DOE. More than 1 million megawatts of energy courses over 300,000 miles of transmission lines nationally. Most of this vast network was designed at least 50 years ago — thus the need for a major upgrade.

Grid of the Future

What will tomorrow’s grid look like? Paving a new, smarter grid calls for unprecedented cooperation and communication, since everyone has a different idea of what our future power network should be. Electric cooperatives believe there should be three main goals behind grid improvements: affordability, efficiency, and reliability.

To keep electric bills affordable, a smarter grid will provide tools to help members manage their electric use, while automation devices and tools help reduce operational costs. And since electric co-ops are not-for-profit, any money saved on day-to-day operations will ultimately be returned to members. 

Technology focused on boosting efficiency could shrink a community’s carbon footprint by letting members reduce their electric use during demand peaks and lowering line losses. Finally, a smarter grid should be more secure and can help electric cooperatives restore service following an outage much faster and safer than before. While it’ll still take the same amount of time to remove a tree that’s fallen onto distribution lines, a utility would be able to pinpoint the location remotely rather than having to walk a line to find the problem.

As with all construction projects, these improvements will require study to make sure consumer benefits outweigh costs.

Electric cooperatives, as consumer-owned and -governed utilities, take a sensible approach to technology investments. This means the co-op business model, combined with DOE research funds, make cooperatives an excellent test bed for exploring the value of smart grid for members and how these new technologies might be able to help keep bills affordable.

Interested?

To learn more about the smart grid, visit www.smartgrid.gov. For updates on how electric cooperatives are leading the way with smart-grid innovations, visit www.ECT.Coop.

 

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