The U.S. Electric Grid



Many have described the United States electric grid as antiquated and potentially vulnerable to cyber-attack. It is arguably the largest machine in the world, comprised of many different systems of almost unimaginable complexity that, taken together, make life as we know it possible. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy has further complicated the system in ways that are still being determined. Join Active Minds as we explore how this system works, its current challenges, and its future opportunities.

Key Lecture Points

  • The North American electric grid is not only the largest machine man has ever built, but also a work in progress that still reflects its roots of more than 100 years ago. The grid consists of more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines, almost 10,000 generators, and millions of different loads spread over the U.S., Canada, and a small part of Mexico.
  • Changes in our society, our technologies, and even our geopolitics are placing additional requirements on and affording additional opportunities to our electric grid.  The expansion and operation of the grid is complicated by the varying characteristics of loads (uses of electricity), generators and alternating current power flow.
  • On the electric demand side, we are adding huge new loads that the grid must meet including internet server facilities, home and office computers, battery chargers for phones and other cordless appliances and electric vehicles.  Matching wind and solar generation to new demands is driving new electricity storage capabilities.
  • On the supply side, in the last decade we have halved our generation from coal plants (from 60% to 30%) while bringing on natural gas and renewables.  But the variability of renewable generation is creating new challenges for grid planning, control, transmission and economics.
  • Deregulation begun in the rail, airline and telecommunication industries has come to the electric utility industry replacing some of the old, regulated, vertically-integrated, public utilities with a wide assortment of new players including independent system operators, regional transmission organizations, distribution companies, independent power producers and an increasing role for the federal government.
  • Finally, with our growing dependence on the grid, we have opened ourselves to increasing, and sometimes new, vulnerabilities including outages, fires, cyber attacks, terrorists, and electromagnetic pulses.

Exploration Questions

  • How much electricity can the grid accommodate from variable renewable electric technologies like wind and solar?
  • How can we best introduce large electric vehicle loads into the grid?
  • How can we best reduce the vulnerability of the grid to disruption?

Reflective Questions

  • Will all U.S. electric markets eventually be restructured to increase competition?
  • Will our electric system still be reliable if we remove all fossil-fueled generators to eliminate carbon emissions?
  • Will nuclear power be revived in the U.S.?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Bakke, Gretchen. The Grid. Bloomsbury USA. July 11, 2017. 384 pages. The Grid tells the story of what has been called “the largest machine in the world”: its fascinating history, its problematic present, and its potential role in a brighter, cleaner future.
    Click here to order
  • Kirschen, Daniel S. and Goran Strbac. The Fundamentals of Power System Economics. Wiley, 2nd edition September 24, 2018. 344 pages. Kirschen examines how the introduction of competition in the generation and retail of electricity has changed the ways in which power system function.
    Click here to order