Press Never Misses a Chance to Get It Wrong About Transmission

Here’s a story from the Web site ProPublica, which claims it practices “journalism in the public interest.”  While this claim may be true in other areas, it is certainly not true on the subject of the US transmission system.  ProPublica’s reporter Ariel Wittenberg trots out all the old cliches about our “rickety power grid” and “we” need to speed up construction of new high voltage transmission lines.

Ms. Wittenberg’s presentation contains the usual reporter’s misunderstanding of how the US electrical system works.  She apparently has no idea about the difference between the distribution system, the local “grid” that distributes electricity in cities and local communities, and the bulk transmission grid that uses current at high voltages to carry electricity long distances.  She has no idea what “the smart grid” might be, and she clearly confuses it somehow with the high voltage transmission grid.  Why oh why do media outlets assign these stories to reporters who are so ignorant about their subject matter?

The basic thrust of the story is that the recent San Diego cascading failure could have been prevented if the new bulk transmission line, (the Sunrise Powerlink, another cutesy power company branding gem) under construction in the area, had been built sooner.  She even refers late in the story to how the National Park Service “has blocked construction” of the Susquehanna-Roseland line in NJ.  Blocked?  Huh?  My description would be “is following the National Environmental Policy Act.”

And what about the San Diego failures?

Last week, for example, a mishap involving a single worker doing repairs on a power station near Yuma, Ariz., led to rolling blackouts over parts of Arizona, Southern California and Northern Mexico. The short circuit caused San Diego County’s power-supply system to completely shut down after it was required to take on the demand of those affected in Arizona and buckled under the extra load.

Had a smart grid been in place, it might have helped isolate the outage and prevent it from spreading. By monitoring activity on transmission lines in real time, a smart grid also can help pinpoint a problem and redirect power accordingly.

So she is claiming that new transmission lines and removing “blocking” by government agencies couldn’t have helped after all.  “Had a smart grid been in place” is complete nonsense.  “A smart grid” is not a thing.  There are various network enabled switching and routing mechanisms that can make transmission operation more automatic, but this has nothing to do with whether new transmission capacity is built or not.  In some cases, existing “smart” mechanisms have failed, or reacted incorrectly, magnifying, or even creating, grid management problems.

The fact is that high voltage AC current can become unstable and unpredictable very quickly.  As grid expert George Loehr has said repeatedly, the only way to really increase reliability is to build generating capacity as close to load as possible.  Adding more geegaws to an ever larger grid moving higher and higher voltage power longer and longer distances is simply moving in the wrong direction.  There is nothing “smart” about that “grid.”

If you want a clear, in depth look at the San Diego failure, don’t bother with stories like the one in ProPublica.  Read Keryn Newman’s excellent analysis on the Coalition for Reliable Power blog here.

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