In backup generators we trust?

It’s normal for backup generators to fail. If we want a more reliable system, we’ll have to change the way the grid works.

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Salt water vs. infrastructure


Photo: Michael Tapp

Salt water is still winning. Unfortunately.

Remember back during the Fukushima crisis, when you heard a lot of talk about why the people trying to save the plant didn't want to use sea water to cool the reactors? There were a number of reasons for that (check out this interview Scientific American's Larry Greeenemeier did with a nuclear engineer), but one factor was the fact that salt water corrodes the heck out of metal. Pump it into a metal reactor unit and that unit won't be usable again.

Now, the corrosive power of salt water is in the news again — and this time it's ripping through New York City's underground network of subways and utility infrastructure. I like the short piece that Gizmodo's Patrick DiJusto put together, explaining why salt water in your subway is even worse than plain, old regular water:

When two different types of metal (or metal with two different components) are placed in water, they become a battery: the metal that is more reactive corrodes first, losing electrons and forming positive ions, which then go into water, while the less reactive metal becomes a cathode, absorbing those ions. This process happens much more vigorously when the water is electrically conductive, and salt water contains enough sodium and chloride ions to be 40 times more conductive than fresh water. (The chloride ion also easily penetrates the surface films of most metals, speeding corrosion even further.) Other dissolved metals in sea water, like magnesium or potassium, can cause spots of concentrated local corrosion.

Read the full piece at Gizmodo

Via Tom Levenson

Image: Hurricane Sandy Subway Shutdown New York, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (2.0) image from 59949757@N06's photostream

Why do electric transformers explode?

Sixty milliseconds is fast. But sometimes, it's not fast enough. That's the gist of a great explainer by Cassie Rodenberg at Popular Mechanics, which answers the question, "Why do transformers explode?"

Before I link you over there, I want to add a quick reminder of what transformers actually are.

Although giant robots that turn into trucks do also explode from time to time, in this case we are talking about those cylindrical boxes that you see attached to electric poles. (Pesco posted a video of one exploding last night.) To understand what they do, you have to know the basics of the electric grid.

I find that it's easiest to picture the grid like a lazy river at a water park. That's because we aren't just talking about a bunch of wires, here. The grid is a circuit, just like the lazy river. Electricity has to flow along it from the power plant, to the customers, and back around to the power plant again. And, like a lazy river, the grid has to operate within certain limits. The electricity has to move at a constant speed (analogous to what engineers call frequency) and at a constant depth (analogous to voltage). This is where transformers come in.

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Blackout: What's wrong with the American grid

It began with a few small mistakes.

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.

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Where extreme weather and infrastructure meet, bad things happen

I just posted the first part of a two-part feature about America's electric grid and the risk of blackouts. If this is something you're interested in, though, there's a New York Times piece from last week that you should really read.

When we lose our access to electricity, there's usually more than one thing that went wrong. But, one of the common things that does go wrong, especially in recent years, is extreme weather. The way the grid was built, and the way we manage it, was set up with predictable weather and climate norms in mind. When those things start to drastically shift—as we've seen over the last 10 years—the grid becomes vulnerable.

And electricity isn't the only infrastructure affected.

On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.

The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years, and people who deal with infrastructure expect that to continue. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.

“We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,” said Bill Gausman, a senior vice president and a 38-year veteran at the Potomac Electric Power Company, which took eight days to recover from the June 29 “derecho” storm that raced from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard and knocked out power for 4.3 million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

This story, by Matthew L. Wald and John Schwartz, will give you a great overview of the risks we're facing—and the high prices we're paying—as "the norm" becomes an old-fashioned concept.

Read the rest of Wald and Schwartz's story in the New York Times

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.

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India's in the dark, are we next?

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.

Blackout tracker tells you where the electric grid is down

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.

Check out Blackout Tracker (Also available for the UK, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand)

Learn more about how the grid works (and doesn't work) in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

I don't remember where I picked this link up from, so if you're the one who sent it to me, please give me a little tap and I'll make sure you are properly thanked!

The history of the U.S. electric grid

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.)

Watch the video at Book TV

Learn more about the history of the electric grid, and how the grid works today, by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: The Electric Highway, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tomsaint's photostream

Energy is more than sources; energy is systems

When we talk about energy, we often talk about it in very disconnected ways. By that, I mean we talk about new renewable generation projects, we talk about cleaning up dirty old power plants, and we talk about personal decisions you and I can make to use less energy, or get more benefits from the same amount.

What we fail to talk about is how all those ideas fit together into a coherent whole. And that matters, because our energy problems (and our energy solutions) are about more than just swapping sources of power or making individual choices. We have to fix the systems, not just the symptoms.

Back in April, I got to go on Minnesota Public Radio's "Bright Ideas" to talk about my book, Before the Lights Go Out. Now MPR has the entire hour-long interview up on video. You can watch the whole thing if you want. But, if you're short on time, I'd recommend the stretch from about minute 8:30 to 10:50. That's where I explain in more detail why systems—infrastructures—are so important and why we can't solve our energy problems without focusing on how choices and sources fit into those larger issues.

Watch that clip, then read this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article about how investments in transportation-oriented bicycle infrastructure have changed the way Minneapolites think about biking and dramatically increased the number of people who choose to bike. I think you'll see some thematic connections.

Learn more about how our energy infrastructures shape our choices and our lives by reading Before the Lights Go Out.

Video Link

Behind the scenes of a city: Trash in L.A.

The video, made by Mae Ryan for Los Angeles public radio KPCC, traces trash from a burger lunch to its ultimate fate in a landfill. It reminds me of those great, old Sesame Street videos where you got to see what goes on inside crayon factories and peanut butter processing plants. Which is to say that it is awesome.

The process you see here, though, is L.A.-centric, which started me wondering: How much does the trash system differ from one place to another in the United States?

Over the last couple years, as I researched my book on the electric system, I spent a lot of time learning about how different infrastructures developed in this country. If there's one thing I've picked up it's the simple lesson that these systems—which we are utterly dependent upon—were seldom designed. Instead, the infrastructures we use today are often the result of something more akin to evolution ... or to a house that's been remodeled and upgraded by five or six different owners. Watching this video it occurred to me that there's no reason to think that the trash system in place in L.A. has all that much in common with the one in Minneapolis. In fact, it could well be completely different from the trash system in San Francisco.

I'd love to see more videos showing the same story in different places. Know of any others you can point me toward?

Suggested by maeryan on Submitterator

Video Link

Tonight: Join a G+ hangout to talk energy, infrastructure, and science geekery

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.

The dirtiest wind power in America

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.

The Energy and Engines Conversion Lab at Colorado State University

Learn more about how the grid works and how renewables fit into our existing infrastructure in my book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.

Image: Dan Bihn, courtesy Colorado State University

Tuesday: Live taping of Minnesota Public Radio's "Bright Ideas"

Tomorrow at 7:00 pm, you can get inside the Minnesota Public Radio headquarters in downtown St. Paul, Minn., for a live taping of the interview show "Bright Ideas". I'll be the guest, talking with host Stephen Smith about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy in the United States. Tickets are free, but you do need to register.

What is a smart grid and why should you care?

If you only have the vaguest notion of what a "smart grid" actually is, don't feel bad. This is one of those energy buzzwords that confuses a lot of people. Part of the problem is that utility companies don't often do a very good job of communicating this stuff. They tell you it's good. They say something hand-wavey about the Internet. And then they pretty much leave you to fend for yourself.

The other part of the problem: "Smart grid" is one word that refers to more than one thing. A smart grid is actually lots of different technologies. They're related. But they do different jobs in different ways, and even one tool might have different levels of functionality that apply to it. That fact is really clear when you visit a smart grid research laboratory, as I did earlier this week at the Colorado State University.

The school's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory houses a little micro-grid, where electricity can be generated, used, and stored in ways that model the workings of the real-life grid. The smart grid technologies the laboratory is used to study apply to every part of that system—smart grid is part of generation, it's part of how electricity is moved around, it's part of how we consume electricity, and it's part of how we balance supply and demand and avoid blackouts. In other words: This seemingly vague and esoteric concept is actually closely tied to practical, day-to-day realities.

Yesterday, I got to go on NPR's Marketplace Tech Report to talk about two smart grid technologies that you're likely to get some hands-on experience with in the near future.

Today’s electrical grid, [Koerth-Baker] says, is something of a high-wire act. “The grid, in order to function, has to have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand,” says Koerth-Baker. “And, there are people that work in these centers all around the U.S., working 24 hours, seven days a week to make sure that happens, and they have to work on a minute-by-minute basis, so the smart grids are really about helping them maintain that balance.”

Listen to the whole interview at Marketplace Tech Report.

Learn more about smart grids and how our electric system work by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Looking down into Colorado State University's smart grid laboratory. Image taken by Dan Bihn.