Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data.
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.
670 million people—roughly half of India's population—has been without electricity for two days, following a massive blackout. The United States has a much more modern grid, but only nine years ago a blackout in the Northeast of this country cut power to 45 million. How does a huge blackout like that happen? What are we doing to prevent another one? I'll be on Southern California Public Radio's Madeline Brand Show this morning to talk about how America's electric grid works ... and doesn't work. The show starts at 9:00 Pacific time and I'll be on around the top of the hour.
The other day, someone asked me what the most surprising thing was that I learned while writing Before the Lights Go Out, my book about America's electric infrastructure and the future of energy. That's easy. The most surprising thing was definitely my realization of just how precarious our all-important grid system actually is.
There are two key things here. First, the grid doesn't have any storage. (At least, none to speak of.) Second, the grid has to operate within a very narrow window of technical specifications. At any given moment, there must be almost exactly as much electricity being produced as there is being consumed. If that balance is thrown off, by even a fraction of a percent, you start heading toward blackouts. There are people working 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, making sure that balance is maintained on a minute-by-minute basis.
That's a long way of explaining why I find Blackout Tracker so fascinating. Put together by Eaton, a company that makes products that help utilities manage different parts of the electric grid, this little web app shows you where the electric grid has recently failed, and why. The Blackout Tracker doesn't claim to include all blackouts, but it gives you an idea of the number of blackouts that happen, and the wide range of causes blackouts can have. For instance, in the picture above, you can see that Wichita, Kansas, had a blackout earlier this week that was related to a heatwave—hot weather meant more people turned on their air conditioners in the middle of the day, and, for whatever reason, there wasn't enough electrical supply available to meet that demand. The result: Blackout.
One major flaw: Most of the time Blackout Tracker can't tell you how long a blackout lasted. But that's probably got more to do with what information the utility companies are willing to release than anything. Still, I think this program is a nice primer for people who aren't aware of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure electricity remains flowing, nice and steady.
I'm completely fascinated by stories from the early days of electricity ... specifically, stories of experiments that went horribly (and sometimes, comically) wrong.
For me, it's a great reminder that, no matter how much of a sure-thing a technology like electricity seems in retrospect, there was always a point in history where the future was uncertain, where mistakes were made, and where even the "experts" didn't totally know what they were doing. In general, I think it's good to remind ourselves that the real history of innovation is a lot messier than high-school level textbooks make it out to be.
In this short video, retired University of Missouri engineering professor Michael Devaney tells the tale of how a group of engineering students—armed with an early-model Edison electric generator—burned their school's main academic building to the ground. At the heart of the disaster: An attempt to see how many light bulbs the generator could light at once. To paraphrase Devaney, everything was going okay until the fire reached the ROTC's supply of cannon powder.
Where did our electric grid come from? It's a complicated question to answer. That's because the grid we have today didn't come from any single place. Instead, its origins are scattered, distributed geographically, technologically, and philosophically.
Different people built different parts of the grid in different ways and for different reasons. For many years—up until the 1970s in some places—individual towns and cities were independent grids that weren't connected to anything else around them. They functioned as little islands, incapable of reaching out for help when things went wrong.
More importantly, the grid wasn't designed. It evolved. Nobody ever really sat down and thought about how to build the best grid possible. The grid as we know it was assembled from bits and pieces, from mini-grids that were often built to be cheap and to go up quickly. Quality wasn't always priority number one.
I think the story of the electric grid in Appleton, Wisconsin—the second centralized electric grid in the world and the first hydroelectric power plant in the world—is a great example of all of this history in action.
Last month, I got to talk about Appleton at a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area. The video of that talk went up on CSPAN Book TV yesterday. It's not available for embedding, unfortunately, but I encourage you to give it a watch. The talk covers not only history, but also the importance of writing about science online, rather than in print. You guys, as commenters at BoingBoing, have made my writing better—and for that you get a shout-out. (Plus: At the 5 minute mark, you can see a little cameo of Dean and Pesco in the audience.)
Between now and 2020, the greatest increases in population growth in the United States are projected to happen in the places that have the biggest problems with fresh water availability. This isn't just a drinking water problem, or even an agriculture problem. It's an energy issue, too. Most of our electricity is made by finding various ways to boil water, producing steam that turns a turbine in an electric generator. In 2000, we used as much fresh water to produce electricity as we used for irrigation—each sector represented 39% of our total water use. (From a poster at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.)
Electricity is generated at power plants. You know that already. But to really understand how it gets to your house—and why you can count on it getting there reliably—you have to understand that our electric system is more complicated than it looks. The electric grid isn't just about you and your connection to a power plant. There are lots of thing that have to happen behind the scenes to make sure your refrigerator stays cold and your lights turn on.
One of the key components in the system are grid control centers—places where technicians manage electric supply and electric demand. This is important. In order for the grid to operate without blackouts there must always be an almost perfect balance between supply and demand. The grid doesn't really include any electrical storage, so that balance has to be maintained manually—on a minute-by-minute basis—by grid controllers who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This isn't the best way to make a grid work, but it's what we've done since the earliest days of electricity.
In the April issue of Discover, I take readers on a tour of one of these grid control centers.
1. A River Runs Through It
Power plants generate electricity, but they do not create anything from scratch. Instead, generators take electrons, which normally orbit the nucleus of an atom, and force them to move independently through the grid’s closed path. When too many electrons build up or their numbers in the system (monitored here) fall too low, you get a total loss of power: a blackout.
I'm going to be joining a Google+ hangout tonight with the nice folks from Scilingual. We'll be talking about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy—as well as my new book, Before the Lights Go Out. If you want to join us, just circle Scilingual on G+ and you'll get an invite to the hangout. It starts at 6 pm Pacific/9 pm Eastern.
In the left-hand corner of this photo, towards the back of the shot, you can see what researchers at Colorado State University jokingly call "the dirtiest wind power in America."
In reality, it's a diesel-powered electric generator—just a smarter version of the kind of machine that you might kick on at your house during a blackout. But this dirty diesel is actually helping to make our electric grid cleaner. This room is a smart grid research laboratory, a place where scientists and engineers learn more about how wind and solar power affect our old electric infrastructure, and try to develop systems that will make our grid more stable and more sustainable.
They use this diesel generator to model wind power on a micro-grid. The electricity produced by a wind farm doesn't enter the grid as a steady, flat signal. Instead, it fluctuates, oscillating up and down with shifts in wind currents. The diesel generator can mimic those patters of electricity production. With it, Colorado State researchers can study the behavior of wind currents all over the United States without having to have labs in all those places. They can also recreate wind events that have already happened—like a major storm—to find out how that event affected the grid and learn how to better adapt the grid to future situations.
Today, most of our electricity is made by facilities that can power millions of homes at a time, and which are located a long way away from the people who use that power. For instance, the Kansas is currently embroiled in a long-drawn-out controversy over whether or not to build a new coal power plant in the far southwest corner of the state. If it gets built, that power plant will be 200 miles, in any direction, from the nearest town with a population greater than 30,000 people. But the power plant could produce enough electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes—an earlier version of the design could have powered millions.
It works that way because, like most things, it's both cheaper and more resource efficient to produce electricity in bulk, rather than a little bit at a time here and there. That Kansas coal plant is meant to produce electricity for seven different Western states. Not just Kansas.
For a number of reasons—but particularly because of the high, NIMBY-influenced costs of building the transmission lines that bridge the gap between these big power plants and the people who use them—we now have some opportunities to produce electricity at a smaller scale and still have it make sense. But what exactly does "small" mean? Depending on who you talk to, you'll get a different answer. And that answer has big implications for electric reliability and how our grid infrastructure operates.
At the Atlantic.com, you can find an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my new book, that discusses this difference, and the benefits and detriments of shared systems vs. energy independence.
When I talked to scientists and utility industry experts about decentralized generation, what they pictured was power production on the scale of Verdant Power's hydroelectric turbines beneath the East River or a gas-fired cogeneration plant that produced heat and electricity for a university campus. They thought of biofuels, and imagined a stationary central refinery, much smaller than the facilities that process oil into gasoline for the entire country but large enough to be industrialized. Electric capacities would be between 1 and 100 megawatts--enough to power hundreds or thousands of homes at a time. Economies of scale would still apply. The energy would still have to travel--whether by tanker truck or power line--to reach the people who wanted to use it.
Yet when I talk to my friends and family about decentralized generation, their minds immediately jump to something very different. To them, decentralized generation isn't only a somewhat smaller version of a system that already exists, like a scale model in a toy train set. Instead, they thought of decentralization as the creation of an entirely new, entirely separate system. They imagined a world where they didn't have to pay the electric company every month, because a one-time investment would allow them to make all of the electricity they needed with the help of the sun or the wind. No more rate hikes. No more ugly electric power lines threaded through their lives. That's what my friends and family were excited about. They wanted energy on site, something they could feel that they made by themselves. They loved the idea of the Madelia Model's traveling biofuel machine. Cogeneration plants bored them.
I think that this disconnect boils down to an issue of control. Scientists and utility experts have always been at the helm, guiding energy production. At least, they have been for as long as energy has been a scientific industry, for about a hundred years or so. When the rest of us turned energy production over to this small group, we got some benefits out of the deal.
Why does electricity move along wires? This is one of those questions where the answer is relatively simple—the wires are made of conductive metal—but the meaning behind the answer isn't always well-understood. Conductive metals are conductive because of things going on at the tiny scale of atoms and electrons. If you want to understand superconductivity, and what red wine has to do with any of this, you need to understand this part first.
You know how an atom is set up. There's a nucleus, made up on protons and neutrons. Electrons circle the nucleus like a cloud. In conductive metals, though, those electrons aren't tightly locked to any one nucleus. Instead, a conductive wire is a bit like an electron river, in which nuclei float like buoys. "Generating" electricity really just means "making the river flow", getting those electrons to move along from one nucleus to another. That's how electrcity is able to get from the power plant to your house.
But it's not all smooth sailing. As those electrons travel, they encounter resistance. They bump into one another, slowing down their movement like fender bender slows traffic. There are energy conversions that go along with those little collisions. Where electricity once was, you get some heat. When people talk about "line loss"—the usable energy lost to waste heat as electricity travels over power lines—this is what they're talking about. If we could conduct electricity in a more efficient way, we wouldn't have to generate as much to begin with.
Last year, a group of Japanese physicists grabbed headlines around the world by announcing that they could induce superconductivity in a sample of iron telluride by soaking it in red wine. They found that other alcoholic drinks also worked--white wine, beer, sake and so on--but red wine was by far the best.
Now Deguchi and co have repeated the experiment with different types of red wine to see which works best. They've used wines made with a single grape variety including gamay, pinot noir, merlot, carbernet sauvignon and sangiovese.
It turns out that the best performer is a wine made from the gamay grape--for the connoisseurs, that's a 2009 Beajoulais from the Paul Beaudet winery in central France.
Incandescent lights work by turning heat into light. You run an electric current through a filament, the filament heats up, and as it does, it starts to glow. The basic element has been around since 1809. The trick is finding material for a filament that will get hot enough to glow, but won't destroy itself too quickly. In fact, that's really the breakthrough Thomas Edison brought to the table in 1879. His carbonized bamboo filament lasted for 1200 hours—long enough to make the investment in a light bulb worth it. According to sources I found in the Wisconsin Historical Archives while researching my upcoming book on the past, present, and future of electricity, one of Edison's bulbs cost the equivalent of $36 in 1882.
This is not one of the earliest Edison bulbs. It's a later model, with a tungsten filament, dating to 1912. It was found in a time capsule at NELA Park, the General Electric headquarters and research laboratory that was opened that year. There were five light bulbs in the time capsule. This is the only one that GE engineers were able to get to light up. In the video, you can see it faintly glowing, 100 years after it was squirreled away.
Before the Lights Go Out is Maggie's new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we'll have to change them in the future. It comes out April 10th and is available for pre-order (in print or e-book) now. Over the next couple of months, Maggie will be posting some energy-related stories based on things she learned while researching the book. This is one of them.
One of the things I loved about researching my book on the future of energy was getting the opportunity to delve a little into the history of electricity. Although I'd heard plenty about the Tesla vs. Edison wars—the "great men doing important things" side of the story—I was pretty unfamiliar with the impact their inventions had on average people, and how those people responded and adapted to changing technology.
What I found in my research was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, turning up letters and documents that introduced me to a perspective on history I'd not previously known. I learned about the skepticism and fear that surrounded electricity in the 19th and early 20th century. I found out that many, many of the early electric utilities went bankrupt—unable to make enough money selling electricity to cover the costs of building the expensive systems to produce and distribute it. I learned that, outside the hands of a privileged few geniuses, electric infrastructure and generation was a slapdash affair, focused more on quick, cheap construction than reliable operation—a reality that still affects the way our grid works today.
Last week, I spoke about some of this history, and its impact on our future, at the University of Minnesota. (You can watch a recording of that speech online.) Afterwards, Christopher Mayr, director of development at the U's Institute on the Environment, told me about the video I've posted here. In it, Doris Duborg Hughes, a lifelong Wisconsinite, talks about her father, farmer Rudolph Duborg, and the hydroelectric power plant he and his brother built on Wisconsin's Crawfish River in 1922.
This is a great story about Makers tinkering with "crazy" ideas at a time when very few people knew anything about electricity, and when getting electricity on a farm was a near impossibility. By the 1920s, some electric utilities were beginning to turn a profit ... but only in cities, where population density meant you could spread the cost of infrastructure over a lot of customers. Having electricity on the farm meant building the infrastructure yourself, something few people had the drive (and money) to manage.
Doris Hughes' earliest memories involve her family putting up the men who came to wire the farmhouse. She was a child when the system went in, and that's part of what I like about this story. It's very clearly coming through the filter of childhood. Because of that, we get details like Hughes remembering that she wasn't supposed to turn lights off in the house, during the day or at night, because she was told that doing so might break the system.
Also fascinating: Henry Ford sent men to inspect the Duborg hydroelectric plant, apparently as part of research into a manufacturing scheme very different from the factory system Ford is known for today. In the late 'teens and early '20s, Ford was convinced that he could harness water power to bring electricity to farms, then split the elements of automobile construction among a number of electrified farms in a geographic region. The result (he hoped): More employment in rural communities and an increase in living standards. You can learn a little more about this at the end of the video.