Thomas Edison Would Be Familiar with Our Power Grid: Time to Update?

When the lights went off at the Super Bowl, it sparked a cascade of amused commentary on Twitter, but the half-hour outage highlighted a serious problem in the United States: our woefully outdated energy grid, with crumbling infrastructure that is not able to keep pace with energy demands and has a number of key vulnerabilities. Calls for modernizing the grid have accelerated in recent years in response to a number of devastating blackouts, including incidents in 2003 and 2011, that illustrated the critical nature of the problem with the grid.

This interconnected network of power generation facilities, transformers, transmission wires, control centers and more is run by a variety of utilities across the United States who work with each other to anticipate and supply energy needs. An effective method of electricity storage still isn’t available, despite decades of research, which means the grid operates in real time. When power is needed, it’s routed to a given location, and when the grid starts to overload with demand, parts can begin to shut down to maintain consistent supply to as many locations as possible and to prevent damage.

The same kinds of shutdowns can be seen when faults appear along the grid. Utilities work quickly to isolate problems, fix them and get the grid back up, but meanwhile, power may be out for hundreds or thousands of people; remember the darkness that fell across Manhattan in the wake of Superstorm Sandy? Even with utility workers working constantly, it took days to restore power in some locations, even in the heart of one of the most financially important regions in the United States.

And these problems are only going to get worse with time, as the grid faces a growing number of users, rising energy demand (estimated to be increasing by a little over one percent annually), and aging infrastructure. Many key components of the grid are decades old, and, chillingly, would be familiar to Thomas Edison, who designed the first functional grid. That’s how far we’ve come since the early days of electricity generation and distribution.

To counter the aging grid, the U.S. is pushing for a modernized “smart grid,” which is slowly being researched and rolled out across the country. The smart grid processes energy in a way that might be more familiar to Internet users, taking advantage of advanced digital two-way communication to track and predict energy demand, isolate problems without needing to dispatch a work crew, and act quickly to protect the grid and divert energy to affected customers in the event of a fault. It also provides storage and buffering, to address high demand and prevent outages; measures that could have prevented the now-infamous New Orleans outage. Yet, the smart grid represents a tremendous investment, and may take years to implement.

Years the U.S. may not have. The Department of Homeland Security has pointed out that in addition to being too unstable to meet current energy needs in the U.S., the grid is also uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attack, making it a national security issue. While the country dallied over infrastructure concerns for over a decade, the grid became ever more unreliable, and the aging infrastructure fingered as a problem during events like the 2001 rolling blackouts in California has become an even bigger issue.

Is the U.S. ready to commit to modernizing the grid before it’s too late, and to addressing other aspects of its aging infrastructure as well? While workers at utilities and government agencies across the country turn their eyes to electricity, what about our roads, schools, bridges, tunnels, dams and other public works projects? Many of these are also suffering from decades of neglect and an increased workload, and that’s bad news for them — and for America.

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Photo credit: Tam Tam

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70 comments

Robert H.
Robert Hamm2 years ago

And that is exactly why they should still be a utility and not privatized. Anything this absolutely crucial to our civilization should not be for profit. Utilities make a profit usually 6% and all the rest gets reinvested back into the utility to improve it.

Carl Nielsen
Carl Nielsen2 years ago

Why should private businesses invest in something the consumers wont pay for?

If you the consumers want a higher quality of service you have to be willing to pay those who would offer it more than those who wont.

Marc P.
Marc P.2 years ago

Sorry. The power companies are too busy lining the pockets of their corporate shareholders and CEO's to be able to afford repairing the Grid. This means that WE will have to pay for it with higher energy prices of course. One would think that the first thing to be done would be to eliminate poles and run wire along the side of the road in pipe (PVC) where possible instead. No more power outages during storms and high wind conditions! No more tree maintenance! No more car accidents or lightning strikes taking out telephone poles! Fewer expensive bucket trucks in use! Fewer safety concerns! How much money would that save?

Lucio Vaccarello
Lucio Vaccarello2 years ago

The unfortunate truth is that most people do not take these situations seriously until the consequences blow up in their faces, i.e. bridges collapse or the Stock Exchange goes down for weeks and it affects them personally in some way.

Having said that, infrastructure investment pays off in both the short and long term but is not on any politician's agenda today, as it would involve increased public spending and possible tax hikes. What a concept - paying for what you need and not somehow getting it free and at someone else's expense. We need a massive rethink of what is important and how to achieve it.

Amanda M.
Amanda M.2 years ago

We need to eliminate the pork barrel spending and profiteering that has been dominating the tax dollars and pour more money into genuinely essential programs, including upgrading the infrastructure! Not only that, but we need to concentrate more on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and get away from fossil fuels such as coal-fired power plants and oil. The GOP needs to stick crowbars in their wallets and realize that by continuing to ignore such problems, they are going to royally screw America over.

And people wonder why my husband and I want to upgrade to solar power someday and take ourselves OFF the grid altogether!

Robert O.
Robert O.2 years ago

The time to upgrade and modernize is now!

Neil A.
Neil A.2 years ago

Yes, you need to update or better still with more power generated locally to where it is needed if practical & much more energy storage if possible in various forms as there will be times when excess power is produced when there is low demand, much more off shore & on shore wind turbines as well as solar..

Marie W.
Marie W.2 years ago

US infrastructure get a grade of D from Society of Engineers.

Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance2 years ago

"Is the U.S. ready to commit to modernizing the grid before it’s too late, ..."

As far as I am concerned, the US must commit to modernising all its infastructure including the power grid. But will it? Modernisation should be seen as an investment in the country's assets, a good reason to spend. It is not frivolous spending but spending that increases value. That is what some of Mr Obama's stimulus packages proposed to do --- invest in the country. Unfortunately, the myopic and obstructionist Republican/Teabaggers blocked much of it. I don't have the information to calculate a rate of return on the investment. But in simple terms, the investment in infastructure would have put more people to work. Those people pay income taxes and are able to buy goods. As the purchase of goods increases, more people are needed to produce the goods. They pay taxes and spend money.

It is time to modernise all infastructure and put more people back to work.

Spirit Spider
Spirit Spider2 years ago

This is typical right across the board of all the important issues facing us locally, nationally and globally. The solution is to take our power back.