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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week, we're going to take an in-depth look at something we use all day, every day. In fact, it makes just about every part of our modern lives possible. We're talking about the electricity grid. It's outdated and it's ill prepared for the huge growth that's expected in demand for power.

We begin our series with NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY: When it comes to electricity, not much has changed since Thomas Edison fired up the first commercial power grid in New York more than a century back. The fundamentals he pioneered are still at work in a grid that is almost 100 percent reliable. So for the longest time, just about everything you need to know about electricity could be learned from a cartoon character.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Reddy Kilowatt")

Unidentified Man #1: (As Reddy Kilowatt) (Singing) I wash and dry your clothes, play your radios. I can heat your coffee pot.

BRADY: In the 1950s and '60s, Reddy Kilowatt could be found on black and white TVs across the country.

(Soundbite of "Reddy Kilowatt cartoon")

Unidentified Man#1: (As Reddy Kilowatt) Remember, just plug in. I'm ready.

BRADY: But then, on August 14, 2003 a lot of people learned they couldn't take electricity for granted anymore.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

MICHELE NORRIS: A massive power outage has hit cities throughout the eastern United States and parts of Canada.

MELISSA BLOCK: The blackout extends from New York, to Cleveland to Detroit…

BRADY: More than 50 million people were without electricity for about a day. That actually led to a lot of barbecues and parties. There also were new worries that the nation's electricity grid was becoming old and rusty. Certainly, there are places where the grid hasn't kept pace with growth. That's according to Arshad Mansoor with the Electric Power Research Institute.

Mr. ARSHAD MANSOOR (Vice president of power and delivery utilization, Electric Power Research Institute): In the northeast and the areas of New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., on the West Coast, and L.A., San Diego, in that area.

BRADY: Mansoor's group predicts that without big changes, the grid will become increasingly unreliable within just a few years. On top of that, the grid isn't ready for a future that likely includes a lot more wind and solar power. To understand why, we need a little grid education, like in one of those old filmstrips back in school.

(Soundbite of Educational Filmstrip)

Unidentified Man #2: The U.S. consumes 950 gigawatts of electricity at peak usage. The grid consists of almost five and a half million miles of wires. There are 130 million meters connecting houses and businesses to the grid. This vast network remains stable through a delicate balancing act, because electricity can't be stored. The amount generated must always equal the amount used. Otherwise, outages can occur.

(Soundbite of music)

BRADY: Thanks, Mr. Filmstrip Announcer.

Unidentified Man #2: You're welcome.

BRADY: All righty then, back to the balance between generation and use. It's fairly easy with coal and gas generators. You just fire one up when you need electricity. But solar and wind are less predictable. With hard to predict demand on one side, and hard to predict production on the other, grid managers face a difficult future. This is where something called the smart grid comes in. All over the country, computer cables are being installed right next to electrical wires so the grid can manage itself. In Boulder, Colorado, Xcel Energy is creating the first smart grid city. Chris Farrugia(ph) is a field supervisor for the utility and he's pointing up at a power pole.

Mr. CHRIS FARRUGIA (Field Supervisor, Xcel Energy): What you're looking at is an aluminum box. It's about 12 inches by 15 inches over…

BRADY: Many of the power poles in this neighborhood have similar boxes. Each represents a place where data about the electrical grid can be collected. That information gets sent to computers that can make quick decisions to efficiently manage the grid. This $100 million project in Boulder includes changes inside customer's homes too.

Mr. RAY TOUMEY: So this is the grid point appliance.

BRADY: We're in Ray Toumey's laundry room, and he's pointing to something that looks like a small refrigerator, but actually it's a battery unit. Xcel energy can store electricity here, and down the road, say, when everyone is using their air conditioners one hot afternoon, the utility can pull power out to meet peak demand without firing up an expensive generator. The utility also installed sensors in Toumey's home so it can monitor his electricity use on a laptop.

Mr. TOUMEY: I love geeking out to this kind of stuff. It's great and I'm learning a lot.

BRADY: Already, Toumey found out his air conditioner was pulling a little bit of power even though it was turned off. He stopped that by cutting the breaker. Eventually, every home may have technology like this. Imagine being able to turn your heat up or down from your computer at work. But it's a long haul from where the country's grid is right now. Consider every power pole and house in the United States and you start to get a sense of the huge project that's about to be undertaken.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: All this week on this program, and on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll hear more about remaking the country's power system. And you can see an interactive map of the electricity grid at npr.org.

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