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.
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.