The Hoboken power emergency – Part 1

The view from Morgan McNeish's Hoboken apartment  the day after the flood…she and her teen-age son were trapped in their building in the low-lying west part of the city for three days with no power before they managed to get out. (Photo: Morgan McNeish)

The view from Morgan McNeish’s Hoboken apartment the day after the flood…she and her teen-age son were trapped in their building in the low-lying west part of the city for three days with no power before they managed to get out. (Photo: Morgan McNeish)

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

When Hurricane Sandy landed last fall, Hoboken, New Jersey got slammed. The Hudson River flooded, knocking out all of the city’s power. Hobken went completely dark. Host Alex Chadwick heads to Hoboken – the former marshland just across the water from New York’s West Village – and talks to people who were there the night Sandy took out this small city.

Listen to The Hoboken power emergency – Part 2.

Morgan McNeish (l) a long time customer at Lepore's Chocolate Shop, where Lucille Burke recalls when Hoboken-native son Frank Sinatra would stop by for a favorite sweet. The shop is on high ground…it never flooded. But Lucille couldn't get out of her apartment building for days. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

Morgan McNeish (l) a long time customer at Lepore’s Chocolate Shop, where Lucille Burke recalls when Hoboken-native son Frank Sinatra would stop by for a favorite sweet. The shop is on high ground…it never flooded. But Lucille couldn’t get out of her apartment building for days. (Photo: Donna Ferrato)

 

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The Switch: America’s electrical grid

Boulder Dam wires. Photo by Ansel Adams, from U.S. National Park Service.

Boulder Dam wires. Photo by Ansel Adams, from U.S. National Park Service.

The nation’s electric grid touches every aspect of our lives. But few of us give it a second thought. Until something goes awry – when we’re suddenly groping in the dark for flashlights, worrying about what might spoil in the fridge.

Consider this: the average customer loses power for 214 minutes per year, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon that found the United States ranks toward the bottom among developed nations in terms of the reliability of its electricity service.

BURN’s new hour-long special “The Switch” is about our aging electric power grid: a half century-old patchwork system – stretched to capacity – that transmits and distributes electricity from plants to consumers.

Host Alex Chadwick and BURN’s producers and reporters explore how the grid works, and what happens when it breaks under storms and floods.

We talk to the people who help fix it, a family that’s left the whole thing behind, and the innovators working to make our national grid safer and smarter.

Click here for photos, video and more from BURN’s special The Grid.

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The Electrical House That Jack Built

The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co. published The Electrical House That Jack Built – a 1916 pamphlet showing how electrical appliances were transforming life in the home. Written in verse to parody the well-known nursery rhyme and illustrated with drawings resembling children’s books of the period, it celebrates the convenience, comfort and health enjoyed by users of electrical appliances. Images are courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

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The electricity grid: A history

Drawing by Thomas Edison in 1880 patent file. From the U.S. National Archives.

In the early days of electricity, energy systems were small and localized. The Pearl Street Station in New York City, launched in 1882, was the first of these complete systems, connecting a 100-volt generator that burned coal to power a few hundred lamps in the neighborhood. Soon, many similar self-contained, isolated systems were built across the country.

During this era, two major types of systems developed: the AC and DC grids. Thomas Edison, who designed Pearl Street, was a proponent of direct current (DC). In a direct current, the electrons flow in a complete circuit, from the generator, through wires and devices, and back to the generator.

William Stanley, Jr. built the first generator that used alternating current (AC). Instead of electricity flowing in one direction, the flow switches its direction, back and forth. AC current is what is used almost exclusively worldwide today, but in the late 1800s it was nearly 10 years behind DC systems. AC has a major advantage in that it is possible to transmit AC power as high voltage and convert it to low voltage to serve individual users.

From the late 1800s onward, a patchwork of AC and DC grids cropped up across the country, in direct competition with one another. Small systems were consolidated throughout the early 1900s, and local and state governments began cobbling together regulations and regulatory groups. However, even with regulations, some businessmen found ways to create elaborate and powerful monopolies. Public outrage at the subsequent costs came to a head during the Great Depression and sparked Federal regulations, as well as projects to provide electricity to rural areas, through the Tennessee Valley Authority and others.

By the 1930s regulated electric utilities became well-established, providing all three major aspects of electricity, the power plants, transmission lines, and distribution. This type of electricity system, a regulated monopoly, is called a vertically-integrated utility. Bigger transmission lines and more remote power plants were built, and transmission systems became significantly larger, crossing many miles of land and even state lines.

As electricity became more widespread, larger plants were constructed to provide more electricity, and bigger transmission lines were used to transmit electricity from farther away. In 1978 the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act was passed, making it possible for power plants owned by non-utilities to sell electricity too, opening the door to privatization.

By the 1990s, the Federal government was completely in support of opening access to the electricity grid to everyone, not only the vertically-integrated utilities. The vertically-integrated utilities didn’t want competition and found ways to prevent outsiders from using their transmission lines, so the government stepped in and created rules to force open access to the lines, and set the stage for Independent System Operators, not-for-profit entities that managed the transmission of electricity in different regions.

Today’s electricity grid – actually three separate grids – is extraordinarily complex as a result. From the very beginning of electricity in America, systems were varied and regionally-adapted, and it is no different today. Some states have their own independent electricity grid operators, like California and Texas. Other states are part of regional operators, like the Midwest Independent System Operator or the New England Independent System Operator. Not all regions use a system operator, and there are still municipalities that provide all aspects of electricity.

Who has the authority over transmission is also equally convoluted. Individual states control some aspects of the lines on their soil, but the rules are implemented by the operators. And others are managed by the North American Reliability Council, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Energy.

In today’s market, some states are deregulated and some are not. Even in non-deregulated states, different companies own the power plants and the utilities to which you write your monthly checks.

 

Check out BURN’s special, The Switch: The Story of America’s Electrical Grid.

For details about how electricity gets to you today, see Power Grid Technology and the Smart Grid.

For more information about how electricity is bought and sold, see the Electricity Marketplace.

 

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Power Grid Technology

The electricity industry has three main components: the power plants, the transmission lines, and the distribution to you through utilities.

 

Mostly, three different entities operate these components. A power company owns a plant, some non-profit transmission company is responsible for the transmission, and a utility distributes the electricity to users.

Transmission may seem boring and straightforward — just a bunch of wires — but transmission is probably the most complex and sophisticated part of electricity.

 

WHY TRANSMISSION IS IMPORTANT

We only have the capacity to store the tiniest fraction of electricity produced in a single day. Electricity has to be generated within moments of when its used.

Many thousands of megawatts of power plant capacity are operating right now, and all that power has to be delivered to the right place, right now, too. It’s happening every day, even as individual power plants are pulled off line for service, even as fuel prices fluctuate, or weather conditions change and there’s a heat wave and everyone cranks up their air conditioning, or a major line goes down and there’s suddenly far too much electricity being generated.

Imagine what happens when your source of energy is wind, and the wind dies down. How do you fill the hole? How do we plan for that? It’s all part of the complexity of transmission, and the authorities in charge of it, who also are responsible for reliability and operating the power markets.

The price of electricity fluctuates by hour, as electricity demand rises and falls throughout the day [link to MM if it’s ever constructed]. It can be ten times the price in the middle of the day, when air conditioners and industries are running full blast. But did you know that the price is also different depending on where you are geographically?

Imagine if a single, high voltage line goes down. It’s not only that the people expecting that power won’t get it. Physics dictates that the surrounding lines will instantly be carrying more, and they may go down too, or their flows may change direction. Suddenly, in that instant, the price of electricity on one end of the line become sky high as there’s a lack of electricity, and the price at the other end drops down to nearly zero because there’s too much electricity going there.

Many of these details – energy market administration, the reliability of the power, the price – hinge on the electricity grid and how it’s run and where the lines are.

 

WHY TRACKING TRANSMISSION DATA IS COMPLEX

There is no national electricity grid. The country is divided into the Eastern Interconnected System, the Western Interconnected System, and the Texas Interconnected System. Our grids also interact with the Mexican and Canadian grids in some places.

To complicate matters, a large number of authorities are in charge of electricity transmission, and the authorities don’t all work the same way. There are Independent System Operators in some regions and Regional Transmission Organizations in others, and there are many tiny municipalities all over the country. There are eight regional reliability councils, map here, and the whole smorgasbord is overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

 

A PATCHWORK OF ELECTRICITY MARKETS

On top of the regulatory diversity, which is not really divided by state, energy markets rules are divided by state. For example, all of New England is lumped together when it comes to transmission, under the New England Independent System Operator. Yet, each state in New England has different environmental laws, electricity rate rules, and so forth. For more about electricity markets, go here.

Each region has different rules about when or if it publishes data about how much electricity was used, who used it, and when it was used. But these regions aren’t divided exactly along state lines.

To track how much electricity individual homes used yesterday is almost impossible. Electricity load numbers are all mixed up with industrial and municipal uses, divided along regions that aren’t quite counties or states. Furthermore, in some parts of the country, authorities claim that the electricity demand data is confidential, at least until it has to be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission once per year.  That makes it hard for the public, the government, and research institutions to get information about how we use energy.

 

SMART GRID: WHERE OH WHERE IS THE ELECTRICITY NOW?

When electricity leaves the power plant, we don’t know exactly where it goes, and as stated before, the authorities who know anything are diverse and follow different rules. Yes, we have extremely complex math to model where it is. Yes, we can go out and measure the lines. Yes, individual power plant companies know how much they’re producing. But do we have a national ability to know what is going on everywhere on the grid? No.

But we could.

That is the idea behind the smart grid: know what is going on instantaneously. The idea encompasses technologies for high voltage lines and for low voltage and individual users. It includes tracking electricity and also handling data wirelessly.

Applications for this information could be endless, from encouraging less energy use during peak hours to sociological studies and beyond.

 

SMART METERS

We are only tracking the total energy used over a month. If there aren’t special meters and ways to relay information, we don’t know how much an individual or a neighborhood is using right now. Someone from the electric company would have to get in a truck and go to your home or your neighborhood and measure.

Instead, with smart meters, information about hourly use can be read instantly by the power company and by you, the user.

Having a meter connected to a pleasant interface like a monitor or a webpage allows an individual to take control of their own energy use in a way that was vague and theoretical before.

We can track when people use electricity, where and when there are inefficiencies, pinpointing power outages and how widespread they are. Lumping geographical hourly data together, there’s no end to interesting aspects to study, even into the realms of sociology and psychology.

However, smart meters are new, and the technology is still developing, which means there’s opportunities for many mistakes or poorly functioning equipment. In 2011 a California utility found that a small proportion of meters were malfunctioning if the internal temperatures rose too high.

 

For more information about the electricity market see here.

Also see the Basics of Electricity.

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