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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Paths to Power: The US Electricity Grid

Air Date: Week of

A sunset view of transmission towers. (Photo courtesy of: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

With power outages across the country causing everything from minor disruptions to death, Living on Earth turns to the experts to find out what’s going on with the U.S. power grid. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Judah Rose of ICF International, a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues, and Ashley Brown, Executive Director of Harvard University’s electricity policy group.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman sitting in for Steve Curwood.

You flip a switch and the lights go on. Now, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But in recent days it became painfully obvious that sometimes it doesn’t. Record breaking temperatures across the country had people cranking up their air conditioners. The demand for electricity soared and supplying the power to satisfy needs stressed and strained generating plants. In California there were blackouts and the grid supplying the state with electricity came close to the breaking point.

A sunset view of transmission towers.(Photo courtesy of: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

NEWSCAST: Our big story here in Southern California is the heat wave of ’06. Temperatures are going to stay in the triple digits again across much of Southern California today and thousands are still without power. We have live team coverage…

GELLERMAN: In Missouri thunderstorms knocked out power lines. More than half a million were without electricity for a week. Officials there declared a state of emergency.

NEWSCAST: The mayor warns many may not have power restored until next week.

MAYOR SLAY: One of the things we want to make sure of though is we do everything we can to protect every person in the city. This is a life or death situation. We want to reach as many individuals as possible, so we’re not sparing any expense.

GELLERMAN: And in Queens New York they still don’t know what caused the power lines there to melt, leaving tens of thousands to sweat in the dark for days.

WOMAN: The bad news is he has told everyone here, all of the assembled reporters, that there is no time, no day officially that CON-ED can guarantee that the power will be restored for 100,000 people here in Queens.

GELLERMAN: It’s all a reminder of just how dependent we are on what engineers call "the world’s largest machine." It’s the network of 180 thousand miles of high-power transmission lines that criss cross the country, carrying electricity from generating plants to local utilities. The production of power was deregulated in the 1990’s. It was supposed to result in more competition and cheaper electricity. But the system of lines that carry the power was kept in tack and now, some say it is badly in need of a major overhaul. Joining me to discuss the nation’s power grid are two experts in the field. Judah Rose is managing director of ICF international, it’s a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues. And Ashley Brown, executive director of Harvard University’s electricity policy group. He’s also former commissioner of the public utilities commission of Ohio.

Gentlemen, thanks for your time.

ROSE: Thank you, it’s a pleasure.

BROWN: You’re welcome, it’s a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: The electric system in the United States is the backbone of our modern economy and yet some have called it, like former Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, a third world electric grid. How good is our grid, Mr. Rose?

ROSE: I think our grid is medium. That’s sort of the score I would give it. It’s a large grid. It’s the largest in the world. It generally functions the way we want it to function. But there is significant room for improvement and it’s an improvement that is long overdue.


BROWN: I don’t disagree with that. I don’t think I would describe it as third world, as Governor Richardson did, but it certainly has room for a lot of improvement.

GELLERMAN: Well, who owns the grid?

BROWN: Ah, that’s easy. Lots and lots of different people. It’s a very balkanized system in terms of ownership. It was owned by, each utility had its own grid. And some utilities, particularly municipal utilities were dependent on other owners of the grid. But basically there are several hundred owners of the grid. Now the control, in many cases the owners also control it. But in big parts of the United States now, particularly the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and in the West Coast and in Texas, the grid is actually, although owned by several utilities, the grid is actually centrally operated by independent system operators.

GELLERMAN: So, we’ve got this huge system, Mr. Rose, that’s got tens of thousands of miles that’s being controlled by hundreds of different owners, and yet it has to make split-second decisions on where all this electricity goes.

ROSE: Yes that’s correct. And historically there have been procedures and mechanisms put into place to facilitate the coordinated operation of the grid. But that coordination is voluntary and is not consistent with the changing nature of the power system, both in terms of the deregulation of the industry, and in terms of the very dynamic growth that we’re seeing in demand for electricity.

GELLERMAN: So, do we need more transmission lines?

BROWN: Well, certainly in some areas of the country. There was a recent study that indicated at least four areas where there was real deficiency. When I say four areas – four areas of North America. One of the areas was Ontario. But the other areas were the New York area, southwest Connecticut, southern California.

ROSE: It is undisputed, in my view that’s how strong I feel about it, that there’s been under-investment in the grid. Many of the areas that Ashley just mentioned are known sort of problem areas. And it turns out that you can’t solve everything with new power plants. It’s important to recognize that while in many cases you can either have power plants or new transmission lines, there’s a limit to how much you can just rely on new power plants, and we have crossed that limit. And we have, therefore, lowered the reliability of the grid. But as you take a look at the investment levels, although they have started improving in the last two or three years, in the period leading up to the 2003 black out they were just down, down, down, relative to the electricity demand.

GELLERMAN: Well, the blackout that you cite was the largest blackout in North American history. 50 million people were effected in nine states. Nine nuclear power stations went down.

BROWN: And Ontario.

GELLERMAN: And Ontario. And it’s traced back to this first energy company. And it’s one of those stories for want of a nail. It started off it seems with a tree kind of hitting a sagging electric power line. But do we know what caused that blackout?

BROWN: Well, there’s really two issues. One is what caused the initial incident which you described earlier. But the second question is why did it cascade into other systems. And I’m not sure we know exactly why. In some systems it didn’t cascade. We in New England weren’t affected by it. Southern Ohio, just south of First Energy territory was not affected by it. On the other hand, as you point out, a number of states were. So, the cascading affect you can’t say simply that that was a result of First Energy. There were obviously failings that went along the system.

ROSE: I think that you know, when you push the grid to its extreme you should not be surprised that systems fail.

GELLERMAN: It’s interesting that even now we’re really not sure what caused the blackout of 2003. But soon afterwards, President Bush got on nation wide TV and said, and said this.

BUSH: Obviously the sooner we can get electricity up, the more normal people’s lives will become. The one thing, I think I can say for certain, is that this was not a terrorist act.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Brown, how did we know that it wasn’t terrorism, just minutes after the blackout occurred?

BROWN: Records are maintained at the companies of exactly what was going on and they knew on an instantaneous basis. So, you could go back and retrace and figure out various failings along the way. Could a terrorist act cause that kind of thing? Yeah, possibly it could. But that’s not what happened here.

GELLERMAN: I was reading in Columbia that they have two hundred terrorist attacks against transmission lines a year.

BROWN: They do and they’re very good at replacing them very quickly.

ROSE: You know, there are mechanisms, remote cameras, remote sensors. I think that people are sensitive to that problem, increasingly so. But it’s outside the normal realm of experience where the typical problems are individual line failures and tornadoes or hurricanes, or that type of problem.

GELLERMAN: When I see one of these huge transmission towers, 100 to 120 feet high, I think of Godzilla. And I think they’re very vulnerable, he’s tripping over them. And they’re ugly, let’s face it. Why don’t they put these things under ground?

ROSE: A couple comments on the Godzilla problem. The first is that these lines are very hot. They’re dissipating a lot of heat. So if you touched them that would be for many reasons a bad thing to do. So to stick them under ground you have to basically deal with the heat problem. And what happens is that your system becomes somewhere between three and ten times more expensive when you go to an all underground system. So in some sense we are dealing with a difficult problem. And I think that no one likes to see the lines and yet there’s – except for in limited niche situations – not a lot of chance that we’re really going to be able to really eliminate that problem.

GELLERMAN: Mr. Rose, thank you for coming in.

ROSE: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Ashley Brown is executive director of Harvard University’s electricity policy group. Judah Rose is managing director of ICF international. And Mr. Brown thank you.

BROWN: Thank you, my pleasure as well.



ICF International

Ashley Brown’s website


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