Reliance, Resiliency, and the Electrical Grid

What is it and why should we care?
Most people do not understand how electricity gets to their homes, businesses, schools, etc. so let’s start with an explanation of “the grid.” The grid refers to the electrical grid, a network of transmission lines, substations, transformers, and more that deliver electricity from the power plant to your home. Our current electrical grid was built in the 1800s and has been improved upon as technology advanced throughout the years.

Recently, in California, there has been a struggle to maintain the demand put upon the current electrical infrastructure. An Electricity Oversight Committee report states, “electricity is made, delivered, and used in real-time and cannot be stored so supply must always be produced to meet demand.” The problem with this type of system was shown during the “California Electricity Crisis“ of 2000 when drought, delays in approval of new power plants, and market manipulation decreased supply. This caused an 800% increase in wholesale prices from April 2000 to December 2000. In addition, rolling blackouts adversely affected many businesses dependent upon a reliable supply of electricity and inconvenienced a large number of retail consumers.

To combat and help prevent this type of problem in the future, California now imports much of its electricity from neighboring states. Forbes reported in April, “California now imports 33% of its electricity supply from fast-growing neighbors, with about 65% of that coming from the Southwest and 35% coming from the Northwest.” The majority of the power imported from the Southwest is produced by coal-fired power plants which produce large amounts of carbon-dioxide pollution. A study was done by the Environment America Research and Policy Center confirms this saying, “America’s power plants are the most significant sources of carbon-dioxide pollution in the world. The 50 most-polluting U.S. power plants emit more energy-related carbon dioxide pollution than every nation except six worldwide.” Of the 50 worst offending power plants, eight are located in the Southwest and supplying California.

The second area where out-of-state power is generated is the Pacific Northwest. The majority of that power comes from hydroelectric plants, a much healthier alternative. However, these power plants are reliant upon water to create energy and, as also reported by Forbes this leads to a reliability issue, “both large and small hydro generation has plummeted over 60% in recent years as seen with the 2015 drought, where low water levels had hydro dams producing 80% less power than normal, future generation and imports of hydropower will be restricted by climate change and the worsening drought.”

What can we do to fix it? Unfortunately, such a complex issue cannot have a simple solution. Bureaucracy, red tape, and the interests of deep-pocketed corporations will all but guarantee any progress made in this area will be slow and plodding. There are solutions available from efficiency to renewable energy and batteries:

Making small changes like switching to LED bulbs and purchasing energy-efficient appliances to slightly larger changes such as installing more thermally-efficient windows and doors can make a difference both on your monthly electric bill and with your overall environmental impact.

The most popular and common solution at the present moment is solar panels, also called photovoltaics or PV’s, which convert sunlight directly into electricity. Photovoltaics get their name from the process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage), which is called the PV effect. The addition of solar panels to your roof is a great way to save money and lighten the load on the grid.

Rechargeable batteries installed at the home are designed to store surplus energy (either generated using solar panels or pulled from the grid during less expensive times). If the homeowner has solar panels paired with grid-tied rechargeable batteries, they are creating a microgrid allowing them to have electricity even if the grid goes down. Batteries that are safe and compact are becoming financially accessible or even free in some states.

Other renewable energy technologies that we are eagerly anticipating and are becoming more available to the public at the homeowner level are products like wind power generation and hydrogen electrolyzers.

As you can see, the grid is strained, outdated, and unreliable. Relying upon such an antiquated system is not in anyone’s best interest. As a respected colleague recently said, “a local electron is a happy electron.” Moving our energy generation closer to the home, or best to our homes like a microgrid, will release us from our reliance upon large-scale utility generation as well as provide tremendous benefits to global warming. While not everyone is ready or able to commit to significant changes such as solar panels, rechargeable batteries, and hydrogen electrolyzers, small, immediate, conservation changes are a step in the right direction. With enough adopters of these innovations, the impact will be felt globally.

Tyson Dirksen & Evolve Team