The U.S. Power Grid: How Safe Is Your Electricity?

Updated on February 20, 2019
Dax Garrens profile image

Dax is a young voice in the solar energy field, offering an alternate view on all topics solar. VP of Advertising for EnergyONE Solar.

The Grid

An electrical grid is a series of high voltage transmission lines that transfer electricity from one place to another; a nation's only way to ensure everyone in the country has access to power. It's a pretty handy thing to have in a society dominated by technology and electrical appliances.

In 1934, the Public Utility Holding Company Act was passed, officially acknowledging electricity as a good, like food or water, to be bought and sold publicly. As a result, concrete rules and boundaries were placed upon owners of transmission lines, forming the foundation of the power company-dominated system we know today. Quite a while after the fact, in 1992, yet another alteration titled the Energy Policy Act was passed, this time requiring owners of transmission lines to grant electric companies access to their network. This was done to create competition in the field of electricity, further separating generation, transference, and distribution into three different jobs able to be performed by three distinct groups of people.

By the time the U.S. had begun focus on prioritizing alternative energy production in 2005, the rules and regulations put on our electrical system had gone through many splicing changes that seemingly would have divided it in many places. It's not unreasonable to think that every state, or perhaps even every power company, would have their own power grid to produce and draw electricity from. The reality, however, is small. Much smaller than most expect.

One.

The United States has one connected power grid.

Feeling A Connection

The U.S. power grid is the largest machine on Earth in terms of sheer distance covered. You may recognize it as "my electrical sockets" or "those powerlines by the side of the road". Yes, that's all one machine, working as hard as it can to deliver electricity to you, and move that electricity all over the place. Your electrical sockets-- the ones you're using to read this on your computer or charge your phone-- are directly, physically connected to nearly every other functional electrical socket in the entire United States.

Although it's true the entire grid is connected, it's divided into a few different interconnections, or quadrants. All in all, there's the East and West interconnections, covering most of the East and West sides of the United States & meeting in the middle. These are the two major interconnections, encompassing a good ninety percent of the U.S. Off to the side, you have the Texas, Quebec, and Alaskan interconnections, covering their respective areas as well. These interconnections are "separated" by an energy filter of sorts, allowing electricity to pass between them, but protecting one from potential problems in the other. This is done to prevent crippling damage to our electrical production from wiping out our entire grid. Instead, it would only majorly affect the interconnection.

I'm sure you're already beginning to see the major problem many people tend to have with the U.S. electrical grid: it's too unsafe. It's speculated that it has approximately eight "weak spots", in which dealing physical damage to the grid would produce catastrophic results for the entire country. What's more is that-- while EMPs and nuclear threats are significantly easier to foresee than they once were-- if the U.S. were hit by one in a vital area, that would undoubtedly deal massive damage to our grid and put half or more of the country in the dark. An even more terrifying thought is that the lack of electricity isn't the worst of our worries. It's the now-unstable nuclear reactors. While many (not all) nuclear stations have failsafe systems in place, these only keep the basics online, and professionals have no solid plan for further recovery. It's still very much a "let's just hope that doesn't happen" situation.

Perhaps the most worrying part of all is that this could already be in action. In 2009, it was reported by Wall Street Journal that spies from China, Russia, and various other countries had successfully planted a disruptive software in the U.S. power grid. It's believed this software wasn't meant to directly affect the system, at least, not at the time. Rather, it was meant to serve as a security net for putting the U.S. in the dark for a while if such an action was necessary in the future. Regardless of reason, many would agree it's upsetting this was able to happen so easily.

The Black Start

From November 1st through November 7th of 2018, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted an exercise for what is commonly known as a "Black Start." This is a crisis situation in which all power from the grid is rendered inoperable, leaving professionals in a position where they essentially have to start powering the grid back up from the beginning. In this situation, they were able to use a small island, isolating its grid to simulate a real mini-crisis. It's impossible to make this drill one hundred percent accurate down to the detail, but accuracy wasn't necessarily what they were going for. During training for these kinds of situations, "winning" is never truly an option. If the pros are performing too well, the difficulty will be cranked up, wrenches would be thrown into the works, and this would continue until the seven day period is over. It's believed that this creates a situation even more difficult and stressful than the real thing, ensuring the professionals are ready for such an event to happen.

The goal for these pros was to keep a "critical asset" online and powered while they restored electricity to the grid. In a real situation, this critical asset would likely end up being a hospital or a military base, depending on the needs of the people. Surprisingly, this was an easy enough job for the pros to handle within a relatively short amount of time, utilizing tools such as weather balloons to scout magnetic frequencies and locate magnetically weak areas in the grid. When artificial obstacles were added, however, things got a bit trickier. The team would find themselves wasting time chasing after what they thought was the source of the problem, only to find out it was a false lead all along. Despite all of these purposeful setbacks meant to keep them puzzled, after seven days, the team of electrical disaster pros managed to get the entire isolated grid back online.

It's certainly not easy, but this experiment proves the U.S. would be able to bounce back from an attack or damage to our grid.

A Smarter Grid

The natural thing to wonder is "what can we do to improve our grid?"
As it turns out, people have some great ideas.

The most popular of these plans is a so-called Smart Grid, a full-blown update of the entire grid system. The oldest pieces of our current grid are over a hundred years on-duty, and many argue they need to retire in favor of a more cloud-based, monitor-focused, modern system. According to speculation, a new Smart Grid would implement technology that would minimize the cost of electricity, while maximizing its efficiency. It would be able to tell when you're using your appliances and adjust the amount of energy supplied to them accordingly. In the same vein, this new Smart Grid would be able to provide automated and detailed monitoring to solar & wind devices, making it a perfect add-on to the U.S.' growing alternative energy-focused progress. If that weren't enough, the concept of "peak hours" for electrical companies would become nonexistent. Currently, power companies charge more during peak hours due to their need to rely on more sources of production to supply enough electricity to everyone. With a smart grid, everyone would become much more efficient with their energy production and transportation, including the companies themselves, removing the need for those extra production sources.

Though a full overhaul of our electrical grid is likely a long while away from even passing the idea phase, smaller steps are being taken as we speak to ensure our electrical transportation is secure in the future; at least a little bit better than it is now. For example, many powerlines are being moved underground, where they're not susceptible to being weather damaged. The end goal is to have as many powerlines underground as possible.

While we're not expecting any major changes any time in the near future, the subject of grid security has been heating up lately. It's possible this will spark an interest and, thus, action to be taken. Only time will tell.

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