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
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
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.
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