Imagine a major highway with vehicles all going one way. It’s rush hour—rows of impatient cars try to merge, pushing to reach a final destination. Exits for cities appear, and a steady stream of cars spreads into the countryside. Electricity today travels across the nation in much the same way.
There’s a national push to improve this setup—repave the electric highway, so to speak. The ultimate goal: allow electric systems to operate at top efficiency and help consumers make better energy choices to keep bills affordable.
“The nation’s aging electro-mechanical electric grid cannot keep pace with innovations in the digital information and telecommunications network,” writes the U.S. Department of Energy.
One challenge for utilities is how to transform a largely mechanical power network into a digital smart grid. North America’s electric grid may be the largest interconnected machine on Earth. The grid includes approximately 3,000 utilities and entities, and 18,000 operating power plants, according to the Department of Energy. Much of this vast network was designed at least 50 years ago—thus the need for a major upgrade.
Electric cooperatives believe there should be three main goals behind grid improvements: affordability, efficiency, and reliability.
1. A smarter grid will provide tools to help co-op members better manage their electric use, reducing operational costs.
2. Boosting efficiency could shrink a community’s carbon footprint, cutting peak demand and lowering line losses.
3. A smarter grid will be more secure and can help cooperatives restore service following an outage much more rapidly and safely.
You can find detailed background information from the U.S. Department of Energy Web page, www.smartgrid.gov.
The national electric transmission grid at a glance:
• 3,000 utilities
• 900 electric co-op utilities
• 18,000 power plants
• 1 million megawatt capacity
• 300,000 miles of transmission lines