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Fixing The Power Grid

distelec.jpgYesterday we posted about the Physics Today article covering the current status of hydrogen fuel technology. The same issue of Physics Today has another article of interest to worldchangers, this one covering the history and potential evolution of the electrical power grid. While it focuses on the grid in the United States, most of the observations are applicable across the developed world, and give some hints for leapfrogging directions.

The North American power grid is truly an astounding feat of engineering, but it has seen better days. Investment in infrastructure upgrades and repair in the 1990s was as low a percentage of industry revenues as it was in the days of the Great Depression and World War II. The system was built to handle the kinds of varying analog loads typical of the 1950s and 1960s; the need for constant clean power characterizing digital technology is more taxing to the system than many of us are aware. Policies to introduce greater market competition, open access to providers, and even environmental regulations have added uncertainty and stress to the creaking infrastructure. The 2002 blackout in the northeast, while a sign that the emergency systems operated properly (if they hadn't, the blackout would have been far larger and much longer-lasting), was also a harbinger of failures to come.

But there are solutions at hand, and some are ideas we've talked about here on WorldChanging. They include:

  • Advanced Conductors, using carbon fiber cores;
  • Distributed Energy Generation, increasing the resilience and reliability of the infrastructure;
  • Computer Modeling of Markets, for better planning; and
  • "Energy Portals", two-way communication between consumers/consumer devices and the provider(s).

    The article suggests a number of other solutions, as well.

    Adding distributed energy and "energy portals" (a term which smacks of late 90s dot-com jargon to me) has the potential to make the electricity network run in a way approximating the Internet, with a greater diversity of both providers and consumers -- and, when you add home generation via solar, wind, fuel cells or plug-in hybrids -- nodes which do both. Following this line of thought, an Internet tool which could lead to a provocative future for the power grid is BitTorrent: a Free/Open Source system of distributed file sharing, where a downloader doesn't get the entire file from any one source, but from all BitTorrent users with the file currently online. Moreover, once the downloader starts to receive the file, s/he becomes an upload source as well. I can imagine a system where instead of sharing files, a Free/Open Source Power network of homes share electricity, both "uploading" and "downloading" as needed, using the BitTorrent model.

    There are undoubtedly many problems with this idea, but at it's an intriguing possibility.

  • Comments (4)


    You don't have to imagine it, you can see it working in a community of homes built with totally standard solar grid-tie systems. There is no barrier to this as far as solar is concerned.


    I am told there are no problems having these systems in high densities, using totally standard equipment (and a grid to tie to, in theory).


    The user can do some things on their own side of the wall plug. Any user can eliminate phantom loads by plugging appliances into a power strip and turning off the power strip after turning off the appliance or get a simple emergency stand-by power source by investing in an uninterruptible power supply.


    Power usage is going up as more and more toys need more power to run.

    The very simple fact is we dont have enough power plants and many of the ones we have are very old and cant be improved under current regulations.

    In the end what will "fix" it will be when it breaks down completely and we wake up to the fact darkness is not good. Solar can help a bit but in the end more and replaced old plants are needed.


    Well, I have to disagree with wintermane slightly. If you build new power plants today, they will most likely be coal, gas, or nuclear, and those aren't good energy sources. I tend to follow the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' thinking. In that mindset, we need to first figure out how to make electricity consuming things more efficient, or shut them off, and take that effort as far as it can go. All around us are evident examples that we don't care about our energy consumption. I'm in an office right now where I'm the only one here and all the lights are on. One of the editors of PC Magazine wrote an article about the wattage consumed by appliances in his house - WHEN THEY WEREN'T TURNED ON. Californians managed to avoid blackouts when their power supply situation got bad, just by being more concientious about their usage. There is a growing effort in the environmental community to encourge to the power company's to 'build' virtual power plants. Instead of building a power plant the power company spends that $ towards consumer usage REDUCTION.


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