Fresh Air Interview: Journalist Joel Achenbach - 'Generating Changes In The Electrical Power Grid' Journalist Joel Achenbach describes how our nation's electricity grid is based on 1960s technology that wastes power and discourages the use of renewable energy.

Generating Changes In The Electrical Power Grid

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TERRY GROSS, host:

When you turn up the air conditioning or turn on your computer you may not think much about where the electricity we use comes from, but Joe Achenbach does.

In the July edition of National Geographic he writes about the problems with the nation's electric grid, a patchwork of more than 5,000 power plants connected by 150,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines. Much of the technology is outdated and the grid is prone to breakdowns. The massive East Coast blackout of August 2003 is widely remembered, but smaller more frequent power outages cost the economy about $80 billion a year. And the clumsy grid we have is unfriendly to renewable energy resources.

Joe Achenbach is a staff writer for the Washington Post. He's written five books and has a monthly science column in National Geographic. He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Joe Achenbach, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we all know there are these power lines all over the country. But most of us don't know much about the grid. And I think we have the idea. We all have a local utility company and every month they send us a bill to tell us how many kilowatt hours we've used. And so we picture them generating that power from the local dam, or nuclear power plant, or coal fired power plant and then just zapping that electricity over a relatively, you know, short distance to our homes. Give us a more accurate picture of what's happening in the electric grid.

Mr. JOE ACHENBACH (Journalist, Washington Post): Well, it sort of like there's this great lake of electricity out there that we're taking our energy from. And the dimensions of the lake are - is a lot bigger than you'd think. I live in Washington, D.C. and yes, there's a power plant up the Potomac River a little ways. But my electricity may come from Pennsylvania or West Virginia, Ohio, because all these generating stations are pouring into the big lake. And the load centers - the cities in the electricity world, a load center is what you call a city. The grid that I'm tapped into goes all the way out to beyond the Mississippi River and there is not a single grid. There's actually three different grids in the United States. There's Eastern, Western and Texas - of all things.

DAVIES: So there literally are three different grids that aren't connected and don't share a power among each other.

Mr. ACHENBACH: They're connected very slightly, but by and large, they're three independent grids. And within one of these grids there are these regional transmission groups that might cover; you know, 10, 12 states. So, for example, I'm linked here in D.C. to the PJM Interconnection, which is -I actually got a chance to visit the headquarters in a bunker in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania.

You drive down a lonely country road and then suddenly you come to this heavily fortified building surrounded with high security fences. And you go and then you sign in, you sign and you go down an elevator and there's a bunker there and all these big flashing lights, just like that old movie "War Games." You know, it's and actually it is a Cold War artifact. This bunker it was built to withstand a nuclear missile strike but that's where they run one of the major transmission networks in the Eastern grid.

DAVIES: Now is their any national authority which governs the grid or are there four or five regional grids or hundreds of smaller ones? How are these things governed and interconnected?

Mr. ACHENBACH: The states individually control the transmission lines, which is something that the power companies were bending my ear about. They would like it if the federal government exerted more authority and took some of the power away from the states to decide about whether or not you could have a transmission line, you know, across a particular state, because they look at the country differently than we look at it.

They don't see the state lines. They see okay, the load centers are over here in the East. The generating stations, you know, the power stations, you know, burning massive amounts of coal, or along the Ohio River Valley, or West Virginia or so on, they want to get that electricity from West to East and it can be irritating to have to go through the permitting process of every county and every state government.

One company was telling me that they spent 18 years building a new power line, but only 18 months of actual construction. It was 16 and a half years of getting the permission to do it.

DAVIES: Now you write in this, actually, I think you quote another expert as saying that the grid is mostly built on 1960's technology. What does that mean? What's its significance?

Mr. ACHENBACH: Well, it's just, you know, some of it dates back many, many decades and the goal - what people would like to do - is create a smart grid. A grid that's not just electricity going down a line or a wire that has no information coming back. Those power lines that go to your house, they're not like, you know, broad band cable or something. You know, there's no data going on that. And the power company typically does not know how much electricity I'm using, unless they send a meter reader to come and look at a meter on the side of my house.

You know, when are we going to bring this into the 21st century? So the goal is to come up with smart meters that actually transmit information back to the utility company so the companies would actually know who is using power when and ultimately you might have a system in which you could control both the supply of electricity, but also the demand of it. You could demand management.

DAVIES: So a lot of us have these meters that have these little dials and don't do anything but measure how much we're using. If we had smarter meters and a smarter grid, how would that help? How would that allow us to more efficiently manage our energy?

Mr. ACHENBACH: Well, for example, when it's really hot like it is today, the power companies have to start up with these low efficiency auxiliary generating plants. And essentially, electricity cost more on really hot days like this. See right now it's all about supply. It's all about just generate more power and try to meet the demand. If you can actually manage the demand then you wouldn't have to necessarily run those auxiliary power plants that are very low efficiency.

The idea of a smart grid is one that - the term is thrown around, but the gist of it also is that right the system is vulnerable to blackouts because people have to literally throw a switch or figure out where the power is going any given moment. It's not nearly as automated as it needs to be. It needs to go up by a factor of 10 or a factor of 100 to be more automated so that the grid will sense when there is too much or too little power on one of the lines. That's what happened in 2003 with the black out in New York is you had a set of cascading failures that began in Ohio.

First you had a power plant that goes out and ceases to generate electricity and then a whole bunch of electricity starts pouring into North Eastern Ohio, overheats some of these 345 kilovolt transmission lines, which beginning to sag, because when these lines get hot they sag. They made contact with trees, they shorted out. Suddenly you have all this electricity with no place to go. And eventually, you had several hundred power plants shutdown and 50 million people were suddenly without electricity.

And New York City, for example, it took a day and a half to get it back online. So you have a system there that's not really robust. It doesn't really sort of meet our modern standards of technology.

DAVIES: Let's go back to something we were talking about a moment ago. We all have heard that in the hottest days of summers and sometimes when there's a particularly bitterly cold day in winter, the power companies are concerned about these peak usage moments at which the system might be over-stressed. And I guess what we can infer from that is that the grid doesn't store much power. It pretty much generates what is needed at the moment, I guess which is why if we're all using too much at the same time we create a stress that a smarter grid might not experience, right?

Mr. ACHENBACH: One of the dreams is to find a way to park electrify. I mean right now it's hard to store it. I mean one thing you can do is you can pump water uphill at night when there's low demand for electricity, you can pump the water up to the top of the hill and that effectively works as a battery because then the next day during the day time when there's a lot of demand, the water flows back down the hill and turns into turbine.

But in general, they don't have batteries for electricity, like anything like what you would want to be able to store it in great quantity. I think the city of Fairbanks, Alaska has a big battery the size of a football field. I think that sets the record right now.

DAVIES: Seriously? The size of a football field?

Mr. ACHENBACH: I have not been there. That is what I am told. The dream someday is when we all have electric cars that the cars collectively can act as a kind of a battery - a storage battery for electricity, because we'll be all plugged into the grid. And when there's a real need for it, they can actually pull electricity out of the parked cars.

You know, I think, you know, right now, how many electric cars are there? Not very many. And so our energy future is going to - there's no single magic bullet for it. But one piece of it is you have to have a better grid, a grid that can control the flow of electricity much better than the one we have right now, which is essentially the old model from 60-70 years ago, which is just crank up a big coal-powered plant and pump it into that lake, and that's it.

It's a very simple system. Now, when I went to the PJM Interconnect, keeping it all calibrated is not simple. I mean, it's, you know, you have to try to keep the supply and demand exactly balanced so you don't wind up with a situation where you have too much juice on the lines, and that can damage sensitive equipment and computers and things like that. And you don't want it to dip too much, either.

DAVIES: If we had smarter meters - not ones that just measured how much we were using, but ones which actually transmitted data back to the utility company - and a smarter electric grid, how would it be different? How would we use electricity differently? How would they supply it differently? How would we manage peak electric demand differently?

Mr. ACHENBACH: Well, you'd be able to use electricity when electricity's cheaper - off peak hours. You'd be able to generate your own electricity from your car battery, if you have your own electric car, for example. Or you could - your rooftop solar panel or your windmill in your backyard, and you'd be able to essentially be able to be a producer, as well as a consumer of electricity. And you'd have more information at your fingertips about, you know, how much electricity am I using? How efficient am I being, you know, from day to day, week to week?

I mean, right now, you have this sort of dumb meter on the side of the house that someone comes by and reads it, which is, you know, it's not really a 21st century technology.

DAVIES: So right now, I don't know any better than to run my dishwasher when everybody else has their air conditioners on and so the power companies, which can't store much power, puts up all their old cranky auxiliary stuff, and that's much more expensive to produce. If all this data was flowing back between me and the electric company, it would -what? They would give me different rates per kilowatt hour depending on the time of day? Or I would have a display telling me what it's...

Mr. ACHENBACH: Yeah. They might say, you know, right now, it's 20 cents an hour. Maybe you want to wait till it drops to five cents and hour. They might say, you know, because of all of the air conditioners that are running right now, because it's so hot outside, that we are charging X amount for electricity. If you wait three hours, when the sun starts to go down, we will drop that rate in half.

And you can - you're empowered to make a decision based on the real cost of electricity, because you're right. When they have to really crank the electricity at the peak level, they bring on these really inefficient -typically coal-powered - plants that - they're the opposite of being, you know, a green energy source. So it's a win-win situation. You can save money, and it's environmentally a better way to go.

DAVIES: We have all these power companies, many of them are investor-owned. They have, you know, shareholders they have to pay attention to in their bottom lines. Others of(ph) them are public. But they're regulated, generally, on a state-by-state basis. And you have this national impetus to upgrade the grid to make it smarter, but every decision has to be reviewed by state regulators.

In fact, there was recently one, I believe, in Maryland, where even though a Baltimore utility had gotten a big grant from the Department of Energy to put in smart meters, the state regulators looked at it and said, eh, we're not sure that this investment is worth it. Is there a national effort to kind of bring some order here and establish a real sense of priority saying, you know, it's important for all of us that we make these improvements?

Mr. ACHENBACH: I would say that this is all something that - the Obama administration's looking at this. The Congress is looking at it. But it remains sort of the local, state-regulated system. The grid is something that's been kind of cobbled together over time. It's ungainly. It's not pretty. But somehow, it works. It's a little bit (unintelligible), but there, kind of gradually evolved. If you had to start it all over again, you wouldn't build it this way necessarily, but it's been 130 years in the making, and it's not going to suddenly be just erased overnight.

I mean, the future of the grid is going to be similar to what we've seen in the past, which is add a little bit here, add a little bit there. Lots of different players get to make a decision. And no, Dave, it's not going to be just, you know, the federal government come in and say this is how we're going to do it. It's going to be much more of a community-by-community decision.

DAVIES: Well, Joe Achenbach, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ACHENBACH: Great, Dave. Thank you.

GROSS: Joe Achenbach spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Achenbach's article on fixing the electric grid is in the July edition of the National Geographic. You'll find a link to it on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a visualization of the U.S. energy grid.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Stephanie Finch, who's best-known for her backup work with her husband Chuck Prophet's band, the Mission Express.

This is FRESH AIR.

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