You’re Only as Good as Your Grid: Part I

Our electrical grid is all around us.

One of the central issues in combating climate change is a tension between consumers’ individual decisions, and the economic system in which they are making those decisions. I may not want to buy vegetables that come wrapped in single-use plastic, but if food distributors use that single-use plastic during shipping because it makes some part of distribution much easier (ie. extending shelf life), then I may end up buying vegetables wrapped in plastic. I may want to use renewable energy to power my home, but the power grid in my state might make that impossible. Any consumer decision we make is going to be affected by a multitude of factors outside of our control. This creates an interesting and frustrating dilemma for anyone who worries about climate change and the environment; you may want to reduce your carbon emissions, trash production and ecological impact, but it’s hard (or maybe impossible) to substantially change your circumstances.

So, while consumer decisions certainly have an environmental impact, discussing these decisions in a vacuum, without considering other structural elements of our modern world, seems to miss the point. There are many, many structural elements that are worth considering, but I want to start with investigating the power grid. The production of electricity is interesting to me because it is a system that is both national (the power grid is a complex network of independently operated power plants spread across the country) and local (regulation occurs at the state level, and most people can name their electricity provider). Additionally, consumers get feedback every month on their electricity consumption in a way that doesn’t happen with many other things we buy.

I’ll be exploring this topic over the next few weeks with posts on how the electricity grid works in general, how it’s regulated at the state and federal levels, case studies of a few states’ approaches to power generation and lastly, how can we as consumers can influence our power providers. The power grid is FASCINATING; given the complexity of how the system works and how big it is, it’s a miracle any of us have power in our houses every day. So, let’s begin at the beginning: how is electricity generated?

Power generation starts at a power plant, with something spinning to generate electricity. Depending on the plant, the something that spins could be a steam turbine (this is the most common method for generating power), a hydroelectric dam, a wind turbine or a diesel engine. In the case of a steam turbine, steam must be generated using a heat source, which could be heat from a nuclear reactor or burning oil, natural gas or coal. If you’re interested, this map lets you see all the energy systems across the US. (I found it really fascinating.)

Once power has been generated, it needs to be “stepped up,” or increased in voltage, at a transmission substation at the power plant. Stepping up occurs because electricity is transmitted more efficiently across long distances if the voltage is very high; less of the electricity is lost due to resistance. This stepping up process allows efficient transmission of electricity over approximately 300 miles. The voltage that is transmitted in the power lines is at crazy high voltage (up to 765,000 volts), so it must be stepped down before the electricity can enter local distribution lines. This stepping down process occurs at power substations. Once the electricity enters the local distribution system, it eventually reaches a transformer box, at which one final stepping down process happens, bringing the voltage to 240 volts, and ready to enter your house.

Our neighborhood substation.

As an interesting aside, when electricity was first coming online, there was a fierce fight over whether the system would use direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC). Thomas Edison campaigned for the DC side, and Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse advocated for AC current. AC current is more efficiently transmitted than DC current, so Tesla and Westinghouse advocating effectively for using an AC system makes our current, distributed power generation system possible.

The use of AC current and the rise of our distributed network has also led to the complex national system we have for producing electricity. The regulation of this network is insanely complicated, and really interesting; this will be the topic of next week’s post. (I know it sounds boring, but I promise it’s not!)

There were many helpful resources that I referred to in writing this post, which I’ve listed below.

This is a really nice infographic of the electricity grid:

Understanding the Grid

And these articles had clear and concise explanations of how the energy grid works:

How Power Grids Work (via How Stuff Works)

How the Electricity Grid Works (via Union of Concerned Scientists)

How Does the Electrical Grid Work? (via Arcadia Power)

What elements of our electricity grid are interesting to you? What questions do you have about power production in the US?

2 thoughts on “You’re Only as Good as Your Grid: Part I

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