The electrical grid–sometimes just called the grid–is that big network of power lines, power plants, and substations for producing and delivering electricity to meet our many electrical needs. Our electric grid is nothing less than a marvel of engineering. Ohio’s grid is inextricably tied into a far larger grid that effectively spans the continent of North America.
Alright, it was a bit of a stretch to say the grid spans North America. More accurately the continent is divided in two large grids, the Eastern and Western Interconnections. And only a tiny portion of Mexico is connected to these grids, it primarily serves the United States and Canada. Also much of Texas uses its own little interconnection with at least some of their aim being to avoid regulations on interstate commerce. Ohio is in the Eastern Interconnection where we somewhat share our electrical generation with the good people of Ontario to the North, the fine people of Nebraska to the West, the Yankees of Connecticut to the East, and Florida to the South. But aside from those caveats; one big, beautiful, interconnected grid of tens of thousands of miles of transmission lines and thousands of generators.
This grid provides hundreds of gigawatts of electricity to hundreds of millions of people; to homes, businesses, factories, schools, hospitals, bitcoin miners, and server farms. It is absolutely essential in meeting the basic needs of human life and modern civilization.
For most everyone, we see this reliable transmission of electricity as an absolute necessity. More than that, we’ve built our lives on its access being for the most part uninterrupted. Even short and infrequent outages are met with grumbling, anger, and complaints. Longer or frequent outages are seen, rightfully, as totally unacceptable.
Because our ability to store electricity for long or even short periods is extremely limited (we’re working on it!), electricity must be consumed as it is being produced. This requires a careful and coordinated balancing of supply and demand and that requires some excess capacity. We need to have the ability to produce more electricity than we typically expect in the event of spikes in demand or failures or maintenance at other plants.
It’s damn complicated. A wide variety of power plants have to be kept functioning under all sorts of conditions including extreme heat and cold. These power plants need maintenance and monitoring. These power plants need a reliable supply of fuel. These power plants need to be kept secure. Transmission lines need to be maintained, the electricity running across them carefully managed. The area around the transmission lines needs to be maintained and kept free of potential obstructions like fallen trees.
When something does go wrong, as it inevitably will, electricity suppliers need to be able to quickly locate and respond to the problem and they need to have the means on hand to deal with a wide variety of these problems. Because things will go wrong there has to be backups. Backup generators for critical infrastructure, readily available spare parts, and alternative power suppliers.
The greatest new challenges and opportunities for our electric grid are the development of dispersed, renewable energy generation; and the advances of “smart grid” technology. The potential of these developments is cleaner, more reliable, more efficient energy production and consumption. The downsides are that dispersed, renewable energy generation makes managing the grid and keeping the proper amount of electricity flowing more difficult. A smart grid makes dispersed renewables easier to integrate. But the downsides of a smart grid, aside from the great cost of developing and deploying the technology, are questions of both privacy and security.
There’s no question of if we should do this. The benefits far outweigh the negatives. We will be reshaping, redesigning, and rebuilding our electric grid this decade, we’ve already begun. Now it’s a question of how well, how equitably, and how quickly we can deploy these technologies. It’s also a question of who is designing, building, and deploying them.
Building a better grid makes Ohio a better place to live and a better place to do business. Building a smarter grid would put Ohio ahead of the pack. If we commit to doing it faster and better than the rest of the world, we reap the benefits of a better grid before anyone else. But we also develop the knowledge and technologies for deploying such a grid. Integrating microgrids of batteries and solar arrays or windmills into a larger grid will be transforming the developing world soon. We can design, manufacture, and license the technology.
The New Grid
- Smart Grid – A smart grid is one that efficiently communicates information in multiple directions. From the producer of electricity to the end consumer devices and back.
- Efficient markets rely on abundant information. Collecting and analyzing data across the electric grid will allow for an automatic adjustment of supply and demand to minimize costs. By allowing integration with automated demand response optimization software, consumers can benefit themselves while making a more sustainable grid. Ohio will enable both the infrastructure and the regulatory framework for consumers and producers to be able to benefit.
- To make a smart grid requires the deployment of thousands of sensors, the digitalization of meters, and the communication of devices with the grid. Ohio will facilitate deployment as well as invest in the technologies that enable a smart grid.
- Smart grids require the transmission of data from the homes and businesses that consume it. This will require wireless and cabled connections. Only small amounts of bandwidth are required for the grid to function. The remaining bandwidth can be used to provide broadband internet as far as the electric grid reaches (everywhere).
- The deployment of a smart grid and statewide (including rural) broadband will be a simultaneous effort to maximize efficiency and minimize costs while delivery reliable, cheap, electricity and reliable, cheap, data to the entirety of Ohio.
- The deployment of rural broadband with the smart grid will allow for the deployment of precision agriculture meaning higher yields, less pollution, and less cost to farmers.
- Coordination and facilitation of the smart grid and rural broadband will be done jointly with the government of Ohio for proper standard setting and cooperation between utilities, internet providers, communities, and across state lines.
- Like much of our infracture, the grid is an ad hoc network built over a century to last a century. In developing and deploying the new smart grid we must recognize we are building for the whole of the 21st century and it must be built to last.
- A smart grid will allow for the integration of microgrids and distributed, intermittent energy resources like solar panels and wind turbines as well as electric vehicles plugged into the grid for charging.
- A smart grid will be implemented along with the deployment of utility scale and home batteries. This will allow for a far more responsive supply of energy. Reducing costs, improving efficiency, and significantly reducing occurrences of blackouts and rolling blackouts.
- Reliability – disruptions are costly, unwelcome, and can have deadly consequences. Improving the reliability of the grid and minimizing outages is then of greatest concern.
- Ohio will devise and implement a Performance Based regulatory structure for utilities to ensure efficient and sufficient investment by utility companies in grid infrastructure.
- Ohio will invest in technologies for more distributed energy production and distribution (like microgrids, batteries, and solar panels) to limit occurrences and severity of power loss.
- Ohio will invest in technologies for the more rapid clearance and restoration of downed power lines and other equipment.
- Ohio will invest in technologies that can easily be installed to act as temporary substitutes while permanent equipment is replaced from damage or routine maintenance (this is getting really… detailed).
- Technology will be developed for the assessment of power lines and network shape to identify and remedy vulnerabilities before they become a problem.
- Security – there exist bad actors in this world who would aspire to disrupt or destroy our electric grid. Ohio will take steps to prevent this.
- A smart grid, as a result of connecting more equipment to the internet, creates more targets and more potential vulnerabilities. Vigilance, preparation, and spending on dedicated cyber-security is the answer.
- Ohio must develop a well funded cybersecurity department that is proactive in protecting public and private assets in the state of Ohio.
- Ohio must harden critical infrastructure against cyber attack.
- Ohio should elect more leaders who are aware of what the internet is, how it works, and the role it plays in our civilization (I’m not being ageist, do you think either DeWine or Whaley have any clue about this stuff?).
- The Future
- It is always worth remembering that the ultimate future of the grid is the total wireless distribution of energy through the ionosphere from effectively limitless electricity produced in fusion reactors. This is not a policy. I just want you to know the Dark Horse is thinking about it.