A Response to Pat Esposito

Last week, Morgantown-based engineer Pat Esposito had this commentary printed in both The State Journal and the Morgantown Dominion-Post.  I thought this essay about the US transmission system needed a response.  Here it is:

Toward the end of his recent commentary on the US transmission grid, Pat Esposito concluded:

If we are to maintain economic growth and electricity reliability, we must address the shortcomings of the grid. Constructing a secure, efficient, reliable grid is America’s next great challenge. We have the knowledge to improve our electricity transmission system; we just need the political, economic and societal will to do it.

I would agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Esposito’s conclusions.  Unfortunately, Mr. Esposito provides no specifics about what kind of innovative investments we need to make beyond building more interstate transmission lines.  He seems to think a bigger grid is a better grid.  He also confuses a bigger grid with a smarter grid.  So, which is Mr. Esposito’s goal?  More transmission lines?  Or a “secure, efficient, reliable grid?”  There is a difference.

First, our grid must be secure.  The current US electrical grid is highly centralized, consisting mainly of large coal-fired power plants connected to distant consumers by transmission lines that are often hundreds of miles long.  Transfers of electricity on these lines are controlled by centralized control centers dependent on highly complex, Internet-based software.  There is very little about this system that is secure.  As has been shown around the world, transmission lines in remote areas are vulnerable to all kinds of mischief.  Power companies spend millions of rate payer dollars protecting their software and computer systems from cyber attack.  So, no, our current system is not very secure.  Simply making it bigger will not make it more secure.

Grid reliability is directly connected to grid security.  Reliability is the ability of the grid to keep sending electricity to power consumers under all conditions.  Our current highly centralized grid has grown less and less reliable as more and more power travels longer distances from generating power plants to end users of electricity.  As experts in grid reliability tell us, the best way to increase reliability is to move power generation closer to where electricity is used, not farther away.  That means a more decentralized grid, with smaller generation systems (as small as rooftop solar arrays) that are at or near where that power will actually be used.  This is called distributed generation as opposed to our current centralized distant generation system.  Distributed generation requires shorter transmission lines, not longer ones.

Decentralized, distributed generation allows a certain level of overlap or redundancy within the system, so that if generation or transmission is knocked out in one area, a local, and nearby, system can immediately provide backup power.  It is on this level that certain smart grid technologies, particularly in the local distribution system, can provide real improvements in reliability and security.  Mr. Esposito claims that bigger and more transmission lines will provide this kind of flexibility.  In the history of the US transmission grid, larger has always meant less flexibility rather than more, especially as huge transmission projects suck investment out of improvements to the distribution system in our states and local communities where innovation and investment are really needed.

We should be careful about Mr. Esposito’s desire for a more “efficient” grid.  It is this “efficiency” that has created many of the problems in our current electrical system.  Backup systems and overlaps in local generation that once existed were stripped away as larger and larger power plants were built farther and farther from major population centers.  Power companies claimed that they were “saving money” by stripping out exactly the features that made the system secure and reliable.  When New York City’s ConEd had problems during the 1960s, the blackout was confined just to one city.  When some tree branches fell on a line in northern Ohio, in the much more centralized “efficient” grid of 2003, power systems failed from Toronto to New Jersey.

We now have the means to build a more reliable and secure electrical grid in the US.  Mr. Esposito’s claim that “wind energy isn’t located where customers demand electricity the most. It exists in remote locations, away from population centers” is simply not true.  As a 2006 Department of Energy study has clearly shown, the best wind resources in the US (given the two highest ratings out of seven in the DoE study) are off the both coasts and the Great Lakes, only tens of miles from all of the major population centers in the country.  We definitely need new transmission lines to connect this power source to population centers.  A project for an Atlantic coast underwater backbone is already under way.

Many smart grid applications, especially at the distribution level, are perfect for the sophisticated switching that is required to move power among local generators and loads.  Smaller scale generation technology for photovoltaic, wind and combined cycle natural gas generation is now inexpensive and simple enough to deploy on a mass scale in neighborhoods and small cities.  We are on the verge of whole new battery technologies that will provide utility scale backup and control of power flows throughout the distribution system.

We need to add some “smart” technologies to our current grid, but what really needs to get smarter is us people.  Much of our current electrical grid is built to handle power flows that occur only a few hours a year, at times when power consumers are demanding peak flows of electricity.  PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that includes West Virginia, has undertaken major steps to shift electrical demand away from peak times so that our transmission system doesn’t have to get bigger to operate well.  It was very hot in July 2010, and PJM set a record for electrical demand for one month last July.  At the same time, the few hours of peak demand for that same month remained well below the record peak demand set in 2006.  Why did this happen?  Because PJM had created a system where electric utilities could control demand and shift it away from peak times.  This is a real “smart grid.”

We need to get smarter about getting more work from the same amount of electricity.  But we need more than better efficiency.  We need to look seriously at our energy use and simply stop using what we don’t really need.  Transmission systems are expensive.  Especially when you build them from scratch.  Simply using less is often the best and cheapest solution to a lot of transmission infrastructure problems.  The cheapest power line is the one you don’t need to build.

The transmission system we need is offshore and under water.  It will also be important to reconductor and rebuild many of our existing high voltage transmission lines, but huge new transmission projects like PATH are no longer high priorities.  New materials for the power lines themselves, the metal conductors, can now withstand 65% more heat than most of the transmission lines strung across the US.  Reconductoring and rebuilding existing lines is an important step in updating our transmission system.  However, transmission improvements are only part of the story.

Real security, real reliability and real efficiency demand that we move swiftly to deploy new generation technologies closer and closer to where power is used.  That is the real challenge that faces our country.  Like Mr. Esposito, I believe that the spirit of innovation is still alive in our country, despite the efforts of power companies to force rate payers to finance their out-dated, obsolete power plant and transmission line projects.