Overloaded US power grid stretched to capacity; Will America follow in India's footsteps?
Could the U.S. really suffer the kinds of widespread power outages that struck two-thirds of India's billion-plus population recently? Absolutely, say experts, and fixing the problem won't be cheap.
While the nation's power infrastructure is referred to as a "grid," suggesting seamless interconnectivity, "the network more closely resembles a patchwork quilt stitched together to cover a rapidly expanding nation," the Washington Post reported.
Experts note that the U.S. really doesn't yet face the kind of issues with its electrical infrastructure that left about 670 million Indians without power in what became the largest outage in history. But, at the same time, industry analysts say the nation's grid is definitely showing signs of aging. And, they say, it's stretched to capacity.
More often than not, the grid falls victim to decrepitude rather than, say, the forces of nature, as in tornadoes and powerful storms. Nonetheless the grid is beginning to fail, say experts, who fear that such failures that caused blackouts in New York, San Diego and Boston could become ever more common as the country's demand for power grows exponentially.
To fix the problem, industry analysts say it will take a multi-billion, multi-year investment if we're to avoid more frequent large-scale outages in the future.
More plants needed, but the delivery system is weak
"I like to think of our grid much like a water system, and basically all of our pipes are at full pressure now, and if one of our pipes bursts and we have to shut off that line, that just increases the pressure on our remaining pipes until another one bursts, and next thing you know, we're in a catastrophic run and we have to shut the whole water system down," Otto J. Lynch, vice president of Wisconsin-based Power Line Systems, told the Post.
The problem in India and similar developing nations with growing pains is one of power generation. The country is stuck with old and aging coal-fired power plants and is meeting resistance internally to atomic plants. Recently, a number of plants shuttered suddenly, leaving customers without power once more.
In the U.S., the problem is somewhat different. Though more plants will be needed in the future, to be sure, the larger problem is that the system of delivery is beginning to fail more frequently.
The network of steel towers and power lines that span the country, along with the power transmission stations those lines feed, are the "pipes" of the system that Lynch spoke of. Electricity storage is difficult and besides, most electricity, the Post said, is used within a second of it being produced.
The system is designed to shunt power to regions where it is most needed, at the push of a button or, in a growing number of systems, when a computer managing the grid senses the need to shift power. The system is further designed to go around bottlenecks or other interruptions that could slow down the electrical flow.
Tens of billions needed to update, upgrade power grids
Towers themselves are designed to withstand large gusts of wind but increasingly, towers are collapsing when they shouldn't, and that's a symptom of the aging electrical infrastructure, analysts note.
"The aging of equipment explains some of the equipment failures that lead to intermittent failures in power quality and availability," says a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, released earlier this year. "The capacity of equipment explains why there are some bottlenecks in the grid that can also lead to brownouts and occasional blackouts."
To keep the country's power grid operational - and reliable - an additional investment of about $107 billion would be needed by 2020, the ASCE said.
Once considered an indulgence, electricity is now a necessity for modern life.
"Electricity was primarily a luxury when the majority of our grid was built 50, 60 years ago," Lynch told the Post. "Most people didn't require computers to do their jobs every day. They didn't need the Internet access. iPhones didn't need to be charged, and communication was all hard-wired, so you could still make a phone call when the electricity was out."