The Electric Power Grid: From Antiquated to Innovative
Updated: May 4, 2021
The existing power grid is the equivalent of a 1965 Ford Mustang: an engineering feat that still impresses, but one that lacks many of the updated features that we expect today. But unlike cars, the design, operating practices, and equipment of the electric power grid have not been significantly updated in several decades. If that’s unacceptable in the cars we drive, why do we accept it for the most important infrastructure in the country?
In today’s power grid, much of the hardware (transformers, transmission lines, etc.) was implemented several decades ago and has not been updated since. And in the case of newly installed hardware, they’re typically created by replicating older designs. This is because design and operating practices for transmission systems, distribution systems, substations, and energy provider facilities are based on outdated concepts. This antiquated system already faces challenges with resiliency and reliability, as well as sustainability and safety.
As renewable energy sources are integrated into the power grid, and consumer expectations change, best practices and equipment need to be modernized. Prescient is excited to share our innovative ideas for retrofitting and enhancing the electric power grid.
A Brief History of the Power Grid
In early electric power systems, an electric power generating facility was built near a river or mine. A power plant then supplied customers in local towns or in sections of a city. After World War II, though, this small-scale system changed as very large power generating stations were built and their electricity was transmitted great distances. The electric power grid became an integrated network that stretched across the United States.
Historically, large power plants were built in rural areas with ready access to pipelines, railroads, and water. Transmission lines were built from power plants to load centers, where there was high demand for electricity. This means the grid was designed as a centralized hub and spoke system with power delivered from hubs (large power plants) to spokes (load centers).
In these early days, homes were equipped with knob and tube wiring that replicated the configuration of overhead power lines. Porcelain knobs were used to isolate energized conductors from walls, and porcelain tubes were used to isolate conductors routed through wooden structural supports. Typical knob and tube wiring with spare knobs and tubes are shown below. The earliest installations used a single neutral for an entire house, rather than a dedicated neutral for each circuit. This resulted in overheated neutrals and fires in homes and factories.
The wiring in houses has been updated since then, as poor design practices were recognized and safety standards were adopted. However, most of the design of the electric power grid remains the same as it was in 1960. Pieces are updated as they fail or become overloaded, but the general design and operation of the system dates back to 1960s. You may be sensing a theme. Even as the rest of the world’s technology advances and evolves, the grid lags over half a century behind.
As a bit of a peek behind the curtain, after the OPEC Oil Embargo in 1973, the cost of electricity increased substantially and investments in research and development were reduced to slow the increase in costs. This set a precedent that has stuck around for nearly 50 years, and unfortunately, little has been allocated to R&D since that time.
The Electric Power Grid: The Street Comparison
An enlightening comparison for the electric power grid is the network of avenues, streets, and service roads found in cities and towns. Transmission lines are equivalent to large avenues that span across a city, while distribution lines are equivalent to neighborhood streets. One major difference is that when an avenue or neighborhood street is overwhelmed by traffic or rutted with potholes, everyone on the block notices the problem. When a power line is overloaded, the problem is not nearly as visible, and often only power system operators are aware until a critical situation occurs, such as a neighborhood outage. Even electric utilities have overlooked this issue.
Similarly, only linemen are concerned when a pole is rotted or a crossarm is broken. While everyone may be concerned during storm recovery, the level of concern dissipates when power is restored to the last customer. The root of the issues, the outdated nature of the power system, is rarely addressed.
The Next Generation Electric Power System
In the next generation electric power system, updates and enhancements will modernize the system so that it can support the integration of renewable energy sources, contemporary consumer expectations, and more. Substations will be converted to electric warehouses, transmission lines will be converted to electric powerways, and distribution lines will be converted to electric serviceways. Some large power plants will be retired. Distributed energy sources will be located throughout the power system.
With the introduction of small-scale renewable energy, the electric power grid must be converted to a holistic system with decentralized power generation. There will be fewer large power plants; instead, small renewable energy sources will be found at numerous locations across the power grid. Energy warehouses, equipped with energy storage modules, will be used to supplement the few remaining large power plants.
To facilitate the change from the outdated power grid to the future power grid, these historical practices need to be updated:
Some items, such as demand based rates, will assure financial stability. Other items, such as universal power transformers, will increase availability of components. Still other items, such as staged fault testing, are essential to verify that computer based models accurately reflect real world conditions. During the transition, companies that encourage innovation will topple companies that simply cut costs. These changes will not lead to job losses or extreme overhead; rather, new jobs will be created and return on investment will be timely.
Designing the Future Power Grid
By studying the history of the electric power grid, Prescient understands the changes that are needed to produce the power grid of the future. Our staff has designed, built, operated, maintained elements of the power grid throughout the United States. Prescient has modelled steady state operation, transient operation, and fault recovery. We know power systems. Our innovative changes will lead to a grid that embodies our values: a reliable, resilient, and sustainable power system that is safe for everyone.
In future posts, we’ll take a deeper dive into our vision for the future of the electric power grid. Follow our blog to stay up to date on our latest innovations. We encourage you to learn about our services, or contact us with questions you have.
And as a quick note, we still love a 1965 Mustang, but we’d rather the highways be full of cars running on sustainable energy!