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The current problems with the grid, including lack of extra-high voltage transmission lines, inefficient grid operation features, and lack of customizability are addressed with the concept of a "smart grid."

Table of Contents

Current Problems

Problems With Today's Electric Grid

Key problems:*

  • Lack of extra-high voltage transmission lines
  • Inefficient grid operation features
  • The grid is one large machine, which does not allow for small individual actions

In order to #transport power, from wind for example, extra-high voltage lines are needed. Transmitting large amounts of power over lower voltage lines is too inefficient because of the excessive amount of power loss in the lines and potential to overload the lines. See the #AC/DC section.

Procedures for grid #operation need to be improved in order to handle adding other forms of energy. For example, more coordinated supervision, and better predictability of the state of the power system. Some blackouts in the past years have been linked to people not paying attention to the loads on the system as stations, sub-stations, etc. Upgrading our current grid system to the Smart Grid would help maintain the systems efficiency, understanding the issues in real time, and help to balance the supply and demand of electricity placed on the grid durring peak and off-peak times.

The grid is really one large, synchronized #machine. The current grid, as discussed in the section titled The Grid, is set up in very large sections, such as the Western section that covers the whole western U.S. The section is all one system, so adding power in one part sends that power out to everything it is connected to. You cannot add more power in one spot and direct that power to one other spot; it goes everywhere. This created a problem when energy production was de-regulated; if someone bought a lot of power from a source far away, that power was put into the system and spread across everything it was connected to. The increase in "congestion" can cause the lines to heat up and be ruined, or trip breakers and cause a blackout. The same issue makes it difficult to build a large hydroelectric or wind plant and just hook it up to the grid. Transmission lines need to be built to handle the power and move it to where it will be used.

Infrastructure and the future...learning from others

Germany is the world's largest user of power produced from the wind. Germany recieves 6% of its energy from the wind, approximately 22,250 MW. The control center Vattenfall Europe Transmission in East Germany has 41% of the energy produced from the Wind Turbines. Vattenfall has to figure out how to balance the supply & demand for electricity, various loads, etc. on the electrical grid. They know all to well the reality of working with alternative energy and what that means for the infrastructure. The biggest issues when dealing with alternative energy are predictions, shortages, and overloads.

One of the biggest drawbacks to alternative energy (solar and wind for example) is how sporadic they are with the amount of energy they produce. Wind Power relies on the blowing of the wind and the wind varies throughout the day and never constant. Some times there can be no wind at all and you are left with now power produced. Solar is just as susceptible to variable power production as wind due to the amount of sun shinning.

Due to all the variability in power production for alternative energy sources, engineers at control centers are continuously trying to predict the amount of energy they will or will not need from other energy production sources like coal plants. What ultimately happens is the predictions for alternative energy power production are off and they end up purchasing power from other production sources like coal plants at a higher cost.

There are times when specifically in wind power production that the wind farm can produce more power than the grid can handle and it can cause a blackout if not caught in time and have the wind farm shut down.

How is Germany handling these issues? They facing the issue head-on and are investing in new transmission lines and passing laws to accelerate the construction of transmission lines. The European Commission conducted a study that showed new wind farms in the North and Baltic Sea could add another 25,000 MW to Germany's grid by 2030. If things were left as they are today, that much additional power put into the current system would overload it and cause blackouts.

Others in the industry say that to make clean energy practical, cost effective, etc. more things are needed. Some of the critical items are more transmission lines capable of handling large loads, transmission lines that connect remote and urban areas (help balance out the system when excess energy is produced), and smarter controls (i.e. smart grid technology) where the power control stations can remotely turn on and off appliances.

That's Germany's issue with grid infrastructure, but what does it mean for the United States? Rick Sergel, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said, "We are already operating the system closer to the edge than in the past. We simply do not have the transmission capacity available to properly integrate new renewable resources."

Additional Discussion of U.S. Grid Issues

The purpose of the grid is to deliver cheap power to various areas/regions. For that reason, there have been little efforts taken for major capital investment to make things better or more efficient. In order to provide power to the various regions of cities and rural areas many different networks, sub-netwoks, etc. have been built to full fill the need of cheap power. What we are left with is a complex structure that is not overly efficient or capable of easy change or to handle something such as power produced from various forms of alternative energy.

Guido Bartels, general manager of the IBM Global Energy and Utilities Industry group has commented that the grid's basic structure has changed little since Thomas Edison's time. He is quoted as saying, "If Edison would wake up today, and he looked at the grid, he would say, 'That is where I left it.'"

The national #security of the grid is the responsibility of the North American Electric Responsibility Corp. (NERC), which is under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The NERC requires electric companies to follow certain security rules, like for background checks and network security.

The grid's security is actually compromised often, and there has been an increase in the number of security breaches in the last couple of years. China and Russia in particular have spies infiltrating our system often, all over the country. The growing dependence on the internet by our utilities has exposed the grid to increased threats. Spies have left behind software that the government fears could be used to control the grid in the event of a conflict. Our systems outside the US have been attacked many times, making a US attack even more plausible. President Obama and the NERC are now increasing the focus on the electrical grid security.


High voltage needed for transmission

Grid operation needs

Information about the grid being like one large machine

Lifeline for Renewable Power

Electricity Grid Penetrated by Spies

Smart Grid

We hear the term "smart grid" used to describe what is needed to fix the issues with our electrical system. Just what exactly does the Smart Grid consist of and why do we need it?

What is the Smart Grid?
The Smart Grid is a network system that will allow the electric companies, electricity generators (coal plants, wind turbine plants, solar plants, etc.), businesses, houses, etc. be able to communicate back and forth in order to meet the necessary supply and demands of electricity.  This system will help avoid blackouts, reduce our carbon footprint, and save people & businesses money by being able to adjust the amount of electricity they use throughout the day.  This network is made up of hardware, software (data management and storage), and a communication system that ties it all together [1].

(Source "Smart Grid Technology")

(Source: "Smart Grid Resource Center")

The hardware are things like Smart Meters, control interface system, etc. The data management and storage software will be able to allow the end user and the electric company to look at your electrical usage and where the high drivers are. The communication system allows the entire system to "speak" to each other and allows the electric companies to have a better understanding of what is going on.


Here is a YouTube link showing the Smart Grid in action in Boulder, Colorado.

The U.S. Department Of Energy has three interactive web links ("Power and Energy in the Home", "The Power Grid", "Power Economics and Emissions") to show the effect the appliances you have in your house have on your electric bill.

Why do we need the Smart Grid?

The Smart Grid has the capability to help reduce blackouts/power outs, allows us to use renewable energy sources more efficiently, and save money.

Blackouts / Power Outages
Power outages cost the U.S. $80 billion every year. The Cleveland blackouts in August 2003 resulted in $4.5-12 billion in lost economic activity. [1] The image below shows some estimates that the U.S. Department Of Energy has come up with to show the amount of revenue lost for one hour of a power interruption for specific industries. [5] The cause of blackouts or power outages is the electrical transmission lines being overloaded either by too much energy being consumed or supplied.

(Source: "U.S. DOE - The Smart Grid: An Introduction")

Renewable Energy

Moving our electrical grid infrastructure into the 21st century by investing in Smart Grid technology, it is necessary to invest in long-distance and high-voltage sustainable transmission lines [7]. This will allow for better communication between regions and states to meet the supply and demand for electricity. For example the when the mid-west has high winds, multiple wind turbine farms will be able to transfer that extra power to other regions that need it like Chicago, IL or Columbus, OH. The same thing is true for the PV farms in California. With the electrical grid as it is today, those wind farms or PV farms would have to be taken off-line or be forced to reduce capacity so that they don't overload the lines and cause a blackout/power outage.

Saving Money

The Smart Grid technology gives us an "easy" way to monitor and understand why our electric bill is so much each month. This system can be used to lower your electricity consumption and save money...and the environment too.

A Huge Grid Project In The Making: The Green Power Express

A Huge Grid Project In The Making: The Green Power Express

What The Green Power Express is:*

  • A project in the process of being approved
  • 3,000 miles of 765 kV transmission lines
  • Will move 12,000 megawatts of power from windy areas to high population areas
  • $10-12 billion cost

The Green Power #Express is a solution developed by ITC, which is an electricity transmission provider throughout central U.S. The plan is to build a grid that can transport the excess wind energy from high-wind places like the Dakotas over to heavily populated areas, like Chicago. ITC wants to build 3,000 miles of extra high voltage transmission lines through the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. The project was aligned to the goals of a plan from the governors of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, called the Upper Midwest Transmission Development Initiative.

North Dakota is the #1 state for wind #potential due to its high wind speeds, but it ranks only #15 of the states for installed wind capacity. This is because of a lack of a capable grid to transport the wind energy to heavily populated areas where it is needed. The Green Power Express should greatly alleviate that problem.

Status of the project:*

The project will require several filings to regulators, and the timing of those is unknown. ITC is doing everything they can to keep the process moving as quickly as possible.


The Green Power Express official website

Wind potential and capacity by state


[1] "Smart Grid" Gets Smarter as Trilliant Surpasses Delivery of 750,000 Intelligent Devices"

[2] "Smart Grid Technology"

[3] "FAQ: Smart Grid"

[4] "Smart Grid Resource Center"

[5] "U.S. DOE - The Smart Grid: An Introduction"

[6] ""

[7] "Wired for Progress: Building a National Clean-Energy Smart Grid"
[8] "The Green Power Express official website"
[9] "Wind potential and capacity by state"

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