Meet the people who keep your lights on

Power was restored today in India, where more than 600 million people had been living without electricity for two days. That's good news, but it's left many Americans wondering whether our own electric grid is vulnerable.

Here's the good news: The North American electric grid is not likely to crash in the kind of catastrophic way we've just seen in India. I'm currently interviewing scientists about the weaknesses in our system and what's being done to fix them and will have more on that for you tomorrow or Friday.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a chapter from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electric infrastructure and the future of energy. If you want to understand why our grid is weak, you first need to understand how it works. The key thing to know is this—at any given moment, in any given place, we must have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand. Fluctuations of even fractions of a percent can send parts of the system towards blackout.

More importantly, that careful balance does not manage itself. Across North America there are people working, 24-7, to make sure that your lights can turn on, your refrigerator runs, and your computer works. They're called grid controllers or system operators. Most utility customers have never heard of these guys, but we're all heavily dependent on them. They keep the grid alive and, in turn, they keep our lives functioning—all without the benefit of batteries or any kind of storage.

Joel Mickey has worked behind the curtain for twenty-five years, controlling the flow of electricity first for the Houston Light and Power utility company and now for ERCOT, where he’s the director of market operating systems ... Like a lot of controllers, he worked his way up the pole, literally, starting out as an eighteen-year-old lineman —one of the people who show up on your block whenever a rogue tree branch takes out an electric wire. On Mickey’s desk at ERCOT, there’s a black-and-white photo of a very young kid in a hard hat, with a leather harness cinched around his hips. Linemen are a noticeable part of the electric system, but, at least when Mickey started working, they weren’t considered terribly special. Along with maintenance workers at substations and power plant operators, entry-level jobs such as this were lumped together under one bad pun—“Plant Life,” the single- celled algae at the bottom of a Great Chain of Being, which regarded the wizards of system control as the epitome of creation. It was pos- sible to evolve your way up the chain, but it wasn’t easy.

To become a system controller, Mickey had to vie against a hundred-odd applicants for one single job. His first year, he mostly just traveled from place to place throughout the utility’s territory, learning a controller’s craft by watching what the experienced guys did. In fact, Mickey didn’t get to touch much of anything for the first five years. It was an almost-medieval apprenticeship, designed to produce a feudal lord of the electric grid, who would be all-knowing and always right.

That last part was especially important. Back then, each utility company generated its own power, owned its own lines, and controlled its own chunk of the grid, which was still, at that point, mostly walled off from other chunks. A system controller had to make sure there was enough generation to meet demand, but he was also in charge of turning individual power lines on and off for maintenance. At a big utility such as Houston Light and Power, that could mean fifteen or twenty lines in flux during the course of a single day. The controllers had to keep electricity flowing to customers, make sure certain lines were deactivated and reactivated at the right times, and do both of those jobs while simultaneously managing everything else going on in the system. It was a lot like being an air traffic controller, Mickey says. There were lives in his hands.

“A thunderstorm would come through, and a lot of the distribution circuits would trip off from the weather,” he says. “And we had to make decisions on closing the connection back down or not. I mean, occasionally, those lines go down in someone’s backyard and a kid goes out to play. You know, you always have that in the back of your head while you’re just pushing these little buttons. It’s scary sometimes.”

Read the rest of "The Emerald City" — chapter 4 of Before the Lights Go Out


    1. It looks like its probably some form of GIS (Probably ESRI ArcMap) on the left.  I imagine one of the other screens is a SCADA program, but those are hard to tell because they’re not as widely known (probably for security reasons)

  1. Recently saw a documentary about the electricity grid controllers in England.

     Their chief concern, in the evening, is when the soap opera “Eastenders” finishes. There is an instant spike in power usage as millions of TV viewers suddenly switch the kettle/microwave/oven on.

    They often need to tap into the French electrical grid to cope with the surge.

      1.  Recently had dinner at the house of a close friend and he described the existing downturn of USA, socially and otherwise, without a clue to economics. I was moved to parallel the past history of the British Empire and offered this , the industrial revolution began in England with the steam engine and lasted until thee advent of the electric motor in the USA.

        I saw you on Book TV speaking of the development of the power grid in NY and Wisconsin, the dates of light bulb invention and improvement are very interesting. could you parallel these events with my assertion of the globalism England experienced when the electric motor from the USA began to dominate industry and manufacturing, in your next public address.

        You have the opportunity to tie the the prime movers of globalism from the past to what is taking place right now and broaden your storyline to the fabric of our lives.

        1. Interesting idea. I have no idea whether or not it’s correct, though. Here’s the thing: Just because it looks like there might be a really great historical narrative happening, doesn’t mean that there is. Worth looking into, though. 

  2. You guys are way better :) and have more realiable power.
    Here in Pakistan, 160 Million people EVERYDAY face a power loss (or Load Shedding)  ranging anywhere from 3-15 hours.  Imagine living without power for 8hrs daily on average.

    In our case, our govts were incompetent enough to not plan ahead for the current Power crisis though, so there aren’t enough power plants and dams to fix this. US, on the other hand, I believe has enough surplus power and the capability to handle any India like situations more promptly.

    All the best.
    RS, from Pakistan.

    1. Oh, we have load shedding here too. It can be anything from an hour to about 12 hours, and I think pretty much the entire country faces it.

      But that’s a supply-and-demand problem. Build more plants, it reduces a bit. Fuel supplies are bad, it increases. That sort of thing.

      This was the grid going down hard! That’s kind of unprecedented… Somehow, Western and Southern grids seem to be isolated, so I wasn’t affected way down south…

    2.  Like we were before WWII, in the cities. Many rural areas didn’t even HAVE electricity until after the war.
      There are inequities in the system that don’t need to be there.  Right across the 4-lane highway from me, they pay LESS for the same power.

    1. Yeah, there are cases where some local component of the grid may need to be taken down for maintenance – for as long as a day. Most bigger facilities are prepared for it. But it’s more expensive than the subsidized power they can buy off the grid, so they don’t actually want to run off that.

      In fact, I think one of the biggest causes for this fault should have been the UP government’s decision to stop load-shedding for the industries. There just isn’t enough power for that in the grid, and they were overdrawing like crazy. That just tripped a substation in Agra, and it cascaded from there.

    1. Not at the scale of the Indian blackout we don’t. The 2003 blackout affected about 45 million people in the United States. That’s huge. But it’s not half the population huge. And it got turned back on much faster. 

  3. I’ve read that as we begin to shift over to wind and solar that grid balance will become even more complex as those methods don’t produce a nice and steady flow of energy compared to coal or nuclear. 

    Look for developments in industrial sized ultra-capacitor technology to store excess power instead of taking turbines offline during windy periods to achieve balance.

    1. The only currently working form of mass electricity storage I’m aware of involves pumping water up to higher altitude reservoirs and then extracting it back out with hydroelectric dams. I know there’s been some work with underground compressed gas storage too.

      Anyone know of other working forms of grid storage available today?

      1. Solar power plants have been testing molten salt storage systems for several years now.

        The reflected solar heat is used to generate steam to meet the daily load.  The excess heat is stored in a molten salt mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which is raised from 260C to 550C. At night, the stored heat from the salt is used to generate more steam.  The process is supposedly 93-97 percent efficient, and is in use at the 50 MW Andasol solar plant in Spain.

        But this is only effective when you are starting with a thermal energy source that can reach these temperatures, which is pretty much only solar power.  There is no advantage to turn electricity generated by a wind turbine or a hydro pump into heat in order to power a steam turbine, as none of the conversions are 100 percent efficient, so they would introduce losses.  And there would be no advantage to running a coal furnace or nuclear reactor hotter to heat up some sodium, as you could just burn the coal as hot as you need to when you need it.

  4. India has a serious imbalance between power supply and demand exacerbated by low powr prices. Some accounts, particularly for farmers, are unmetered, while some urban areas sell power at two cents per KWH. Power is rationed using rolling blackouts. India lacks generation facilities and until recently had very limited transmission capabilities with no wheeling infrastructure. There are some good articles at the IEEE web site on this. In some ways, it’s impressive the whole thing doesn’t collapse more often. (One of the IEEE articles notes that Mumbai’s primary provider has set up the city to island itself if the grid surrounding it shows signs of collapse. That’s a solid vote of confidence, but it’s better to be islanded and on, even with load shedding, than off in the city.)

    The U.S. grid is susceptible, but we have a closer balance between generation and demand, and we have a pretty good dispatch structure. The eastern grid runs west past Chicago swings power from Hydro-Quebec in the north and south to the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a big pool of power backing it with enough commercial users signed up for dynamic load shedding. The whole thing was restructured after the big ’65 blackout, and they’ve been studying and improving the grid ever since then. It’s definitely not invulnerable, but it is in fairly good shape. Even now, there are engineers working on improving the structure and reliability of the grid. Not every project, for example, the Long Island to Connecticut or Olympic Peninsula to Vancouver Island link, will be built, but nobody is sitting still, just waiting for the next collapse.

  5. Maggie, thanks for these articles. I will have to get around to reading your book.  I actually have worked for several utilities in the North Texas region specifically doing support for the dispatch software systems that support System Operators.  A lot of this is moving (or has already moved) to GIS based programs, which is what my expertise is. 

  6. I currently work for an electrical utility. My career started out as a boiler operator in a mid-sized power plant. From there, I went into a position in the control center. I have since changed positions again, and I am now in the substation department. I have the unique perspective of having seen virtually the entire process of the power cycle, from generation to distribution.  Having said that, I can totally appreciate the complexity and detail of the controller’s responsibilities, but exalting them beyond any other link in the chain to me seems foolish.  It is a very difficult and complex process to produce the electricity we use, and get it into our homes. Without the boiler operator turning the valves, the controller overseeing the transmission, the dispatcher sending out the trouble men to repair our blown fuse, we would not have power. Controllers aren’t the be-all-end-all of the electrical system. They are merely an ingredient to a much larger pie. Their dedication to their job, and overcoming the complexities to an increasingly stressed and growing system speaks volumes about their character. But so does the 110+ degree conditions the boiler operator works in, as well as the storms and working on hot lines of the trouble man. The ultimate goal of each and every one of the positions involved is safe and reliable electric for every customer.  To compare any piece of this complex system to “Plant Life, the single- celled algae at the bottom of a Great Chain of Being” does them a great disservice.

    That being said, I enjoyed reading your article, and appreciate the recognition of the hard work these unsung heroes do every day. Thanks!

  7. Dear grid operator, please disable the power in northern chicago, because i refuse to get off the couch and hit the switch.  Goodnight.

Comments are closed.