The Electrical Grid

I thought my family had escaped the misfortune of losing power during Hurricane Irene until our power went out late in the afternoon on Sunday for about six hours.  Even that moment I had started to ponder the technologies within our power grid system that were keeping it active for most and getting it back online for others.  Below are some thoughts keeping in mind what every young person should understand about the ingenuity in the design of these systems.

As I began to read again about the power grid on and Wikipedia, perhaps the most startling factor is the age of the infrastructure.  Many of the devices that bring us power from generation to distribution to the home or business are fifty years old or even older.  This factor, while it entered the minds of many during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, continues to hold the system and its reliability back.  Yet, just because something can still perform its task in a system does not mean that it would not improve the system if replaced.

Another important concept in this discussion is that of redundancy in system design.  Redundancy is a most important factor in the reliability of any system.  Voting systems include software and hardware redundancy to increase reliability.  In the case of the power grid, I imagine that more heavily populated areas such as my suburban neighborhood fare better that rural areas.  Think of it this way: if a tree falls and knocks out a power line or if a transformer explodes due to an electrical surge (check out this YouTube video), if there is redundancy in the system circuitry that allows another path for the electricity to get to your home, your lights might flicker for a moment, but your power will remain on.  As you consider the cabling around your neighborhood, you might be able to see how a suburban city layout might fare better as I suggest.  But, one should also consider that redundancy designed into a system always comes with a higher cost.

I also wonder how people with solar panels and other “off-the-grid” technologies made it through this storm.  I thought of technologies such as solid oxide fuel cells such as the “Bloom Box” as it was featured on this episode of 60 Minutes, which could eventually take us off of a grid system entirely.

A final concept for this topic is logistics.  Think about the planning and logistics that go into getting the power back on where it was lost.  Just a few hundred or few thousand people, machines, tools, and vehicles restoring systems for a few hundred thousand or a few million people takes planning and preparation.  I imagine many systems engineers and others are working behind the scenes during this time. If not for their planning, hours might turn into days and days might turn into weeks before normalcy can be restored.

So, these are some topics from this “teachable moment” as we call it in education.  Part of the ingenuity of our people and society comes from understanding of and appreciation for products, systems and topics such as the power grid, infrastructure, redundancy, alternate energy, and logistics.


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