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amused commentary on Twitter, but the half-hour outage highlighted a serious problem in the United States: our woefully outdated energy grid, with crumbling infrastructure that is not able to keep pace with energy demands and has a number of key vulnerabilities.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.
Photo credit: Tam Tam
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