We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Sustainable Energy

Surge Protector

From the editor in chief

There’s been no shortage of news coverage of the power crisis in California and the Bush administration’s energy policy. Still, all those articles have managed to miss a key part of the story: how the electric power grid actually works, and what effect new technology might have on the shortages that already beset California and are imminent in other parts of the country. Like the air traffic system or the telephone system, the power grid remains one of those gigantic human constructions that lurk in the background of policy controversies but never make it into the light of day. Technology Review is changing that.

Peter Fairley’s meticulously reported story in this issue (“A Smarter Power Grid,”) offers an introduction to the tangle of wires that carries the juice from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed. The grid was built half a century ago and served us well for decades, but it hasn’t aged well. Particularly since the rapid deregulation of the power production industry in the last decade, the grid has become overburdened and fragile, prone to temperamental displays and dramatic funks.

What is more, at a time when California (and increasingly the rest of the country) is crying out for power, the creaky old grid is hiding a huge amount of capacity that cannot be used, because it would push the wild tangle of wires closer to meltdown. One way to get at this hidden capacity is to apply modern digital switching techniques to the transmission of power in an approach known as “power electronics.” When two high-voltage AC lines-the kind that carry power across counties and states-run parallel, for example, power electronics makes it possible to switch the load from one to the other.

This story is part of our July/August 2001 Issue
See the rest of the issue

Until now, that’s been a very difficult task. But power electronics can reshape the alternating current in each line to affect resistance, allowing operators to allocate power between the two lines. By routing power where it’s needed during times of peak load, and generally keeping the system better balanced, power electronics could prevent future crashes. The technology would also enable consumers to tap into the existing system’s unused capacity. That desirable outcome could emerge in parallel with the political and economic changes needed to make sure we avoid an energy catastrophe.

But it won’t happen overnight. As with all modifications of global systems, the introduction of power electronics will happen in increments, gathering momentum until it transforms the whole crazy-quilt power grid. (Think of fiber optics, threading its way through the telecom system.) This change is already under way in marginal elements of the power grid.

Now, Fairley tells us, the first major experiment is going online. At a switching station in Marcy, in upstate New York, power electronics is being put in place to juggle transmission between two giant electrical conduits that service New York City. If this experiment works, it could provide a model for upgrades in many other areas of the system, unleashing considerable entrepreneurial energy in the process.

No matter how well this experiment works, we will still need to wrestle with the demons unleashed by deregulation, and think about better ways to moderate our ravenous appetite for kilowatts. But new technology does offer novel and enterprising tools for dealing with the coming power crunch. And you’ll read about them first in Technology Review.

The latest Insider Conversation is live! Listen to the story behind the story.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.