Electricity 101

What Really Happens When You Turn On The Light

There are a couple of things that I consider everyday miracles. My list does not include moments such as a child phoning me without asking for my credit card number. I’m thinking here about opening a tap for hot and cold water whenever I want it, and flipping a switch for a flood of light whenever I want it.

Most of us know vaguely where water comes from, but electricity is just there—you know, in the socket. This morning, I went out to the front yard to take a look at my electric meter. The dial spun around lazily, numbers breezed past, and I had not a clue what it all meant. I asked Mark Brownstein, Deputy Director of EDF’s Energy Program, to be my guide through the world of electricity, because he is the sort of person whose eyes brighten when conversation turns to transmission grids. He developed a passion for all things electric as a child, watching Godzilla send sparks flying as he tromped on those spindly towers.

“Electricity is the only industry that has not yet been revolutionized by the information technology that has so utterly transformed the rest of our lives.”

“Electricity is the most amazing form of energy we have,” says Brownstein, whose passion for the subject is contagious. “Even our bodies work because of electricity. When you’re talking about electricity, you’re talking about everything. Social science, politics, economics, physics, environmental science. Everything.”

powerplantListening to him, I finally realize why it is imperative to understand what happens when I flick a light switch. Nearly 50% of U.S. electricity comes from coal, the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive, source of energy. Burning coal pollutes the air, contributes to acid rain, wastes huge amounts of water and creates mercury emissions that get into our water and food supplies. Eat tuna sushi for lunch everyday, and watch the toxic methylmercury levels in your bloodstream go up.

Meanwhile electricity demand is steadily rising; the Department of Energy calculates that it will rise by 26% over the next 23 years. The answer to meeting that demand with clean energy supply lies in the ever-renewing abundance of the wind and the sun. That’s the future. There’s only one problem. We are not—yet—ready for it.

The way we generate and deliver electricity has basically not changed in a century. If Thomas Edison came back to life tomorrow, he would recognize today’s electric grid. (In contrast, imagine how stunned Alexander Graham Bell would be by our cell phones.) The system is massive, a marvel of human engineering, with 160,000 miles of lines designed to move electricity from power plants to customers. The grid is so finely tuned that it adjusts to changing conditions and demands instantaneously, in milliseconds. If a tree falls on a line in Florida, it takes a mere two seconds for people in Canada to feel the impact. That’s not always a good thing: The calamitous blackout in the Northeast in August 2003 was triggered by branches touching two wires in Ohio.

Unfortunately, the grid, however fast, is not efficient: up to two-thirds of the fuel burned to produce electricity is lost in the process of generation and delivery. Wasted. And at the other end of those lines, when the power reaches you and me? More wasted energy.

electric meterBack to that spinning meter in my front yard—the one that speeds up alarmingly when my clothes are in the dryer. Electricity is the only thing that is simultaneously purchased and consumed. Every time you flick that switch, a power plant has to generate the electrons you’ve asked for and send them to you, often from hundreds of miles away. Because we can’t store electricity, we need to keep lots of extra power plants waiting around, ready to meet any level of demand. Expensive.

We can text or twitter or tweet, day and night, to let each other know where we are, moment by moment. But your local electricity supplier has no idea if your lights are on. In fact, the system operates blindly. If you lose power in your home, you have to notify your company. Electricity is the only industry that has not yet been revolutionized by the information technology that has so utterly transformed the rest of our lives.

That is changing. If it seems miraculous for power to arrive at the flick of a switch, things are going to get even more wondrous with smart grids, a vision for the nimble utility of the future. EDF is a partner in The Pecan Street Project in Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s first comprehensive smart grid experiments. As team leader Miriam Horn puts it, “Smart grids are networked, like the Internet. They will find what you need on the energy web and route it to you along the most efficient pathways. They’ll adjust demand to match clean, renewable supply, not only in your home, but across neighborhoods.”

Smart grids will make us smarter about energy consumption, because they’ll give us lots of detail about what we’re spending on those extra refrigerators, and when during the day it will be cheaper to spin that clothes dryer. Sure, it takes time to build a new power system—but remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we had to buy our phones from one phone company. We can change the world quickly—especially when change makes our lives better.

But will smart grids make us smarter about the real cost of wastefulness? We seem to be finding more ways to do things electrically that used to be done by hand. I have to remind myself that I don’t always need to haul out the vacuum cleaner, and can reach for a broom to sweep the floor. Just stroll down any suburban street in the middle of the night and try to see the starry skies—you’ll be blinded by the blaze of outdoor lights. I doubt they’re on to give the raccoons a better look inside the garbage bins.

In the end, it’s a free country. When you get down to it, these days we have come to believe in a right to be wasteful. Smart grids won’t immediately change that. They’ll just charge a premium for prime-time use. But maybe smart grids can do something more radical.

Information is powerful. Learning more about how we’re spending our resources could throw light on what’s become of our national character. A prominent part of the American temperament, deeply embedded in our cultural DNA, is a propensity to be thrifty, which my dictionary defines as “wise economy in the management of money and other resources.” It may be old-fashioned; it may even, in just one generation, have become a recessive trait. But with the right kind of support, we could once again see how to get a charge out of saving. Now that would be forward thinking.

48 Responses

Comment from Jennifer Baltz
November 6th, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Thank you for an enlightening post. I’ve heard the President talk about making updating the power grid a priority, but I thought it was just a matter of the system needing to expand or for national security. It’s stunning that there is so much waste in the system at both ends–I had no idea. Here’s hoping that smart grids catch on worldwide very soon.

Comment from detour
November 6th, 2009 at 3:52 pm

More information is a small part of saving energy and plays a minor part in greater reliability.

The topic I don’t hear discussed is “smart distribution”. We need to get rid of those 60 Hertz generators, that Edison would recognize, and switch to DC distribution that Edison would be amazed about. We have the technology to do that, and would end up with lots of surplus copper as one immediate benefit.

But the most important benefit would come from everyone with even a single solar panel. With nothing more than that panel and an inexpensive DC-DC boost converter, anyone could be an energy producer rather than just a consumer.

Now that would be a smarter energy grid! The present proposals are little more than “feel good” measures that will only cement the producer/consumer relationship that keeps us burning coal.

Comment from Diego
November 6th, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I liked your articla, but offer one correction, it was Nikola Tesla developed the AC current used by our power grid, not Thomas Edison.

Comment from Paul Burke - Author Journey Home
November 6th, 2009 at 4:02 pm

The amount of jobs and the boost to the economy this will be can not be estimated. There are so many ways forward but at the end of the line is the status quo digging its heels in giving ground reluctantly as well as violently.

Whether its health care, clean energy or wall street we must be determined and vigilante every day and speak up, call, write, email, blog, tweet, assemble and vote until our fingers, feet and voices crack.

Only a full out effort day after day by each and everyone of us will loosen the death grip the status quo, dirty energy, mountain top removal, war for oil, monopolized health care and ponzi scheme wall streeters have on our Government, Economy and National Defense….I will repost your article as far and wide as I can.

Author-Journey Home

Comment from Oliver
November 6th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Glad to hear you’re using a broom. Maybe you’ll ditch the dryer, too –clotheslines work amazingly well.

Comment from Jim M
November 6th, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Recently a smart meter was installed by PG&E at my business, I was excited by this prospect to have greater information on our energy usage, but so far we haven’t gotten any useful information out it. Their best program for monitoring power “InterAct” is only available to customers with bills in the many thousands of dollars a month. And I can’t seem to get even the most basic information from their regular program, I might get some better information in 60 days, but who knows. Google is working on a potentially important tool called “Google Power Meter” which may give me good information down the road, but that is still many months away. So while the potential is there right now the smart networks are not that smart.

Comment from Dan Butler
November 6th, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Nice article that leaves me with more questions and a cheer for Diego. His plea for a DC distribution grid shares importance right up there with conservation. There is far less transmission loss of power using DC instead of AC. This loss amounts to burning coal/other fuel for no reason other than to heat up the outside air and ionize some atmosphere.

My question is where does the figure of of 66% energy conversion loss come from. I have heard everything from 90% down to 10%. I have never seen any of these figures supplied with references. It seems to me that to arrive at the 66% figure one would have to sum the high voltage and low voltage line losses, the energy lost when converting various fuels to electric power and the loss of efficiency in all the end user appliances, lights, heaters, motors etc. If this is the case, while a smart grid is highly desirable, it will not bring down the 66% figure to anything approaching single digits. Can someone elaborate?

Comment from Eldon Wedlock
November 6th, 2009 at 4:34 pm

A smart grid would be nice, but we need to think bigger than that. See: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-everything-tv, Paul mentioned jobs – do you think?

Comment from John Milton
November 6th, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Having just sat through 2 weeks of Public Utility Commission hearings in Colorado concerning rate increases to pay for an unnecessary new coal plant in Pueblo and a SMART GRID project in Boulder, my advice is be careful what you ask for. Very, very careful.

SMART GRID technology will probably cost Colorado rate payers $4-6 Billion (likely more, maybe less) to buy and install based on the cost of the Boulder project in which much equipment and software was donated to the utility in hopes of landing future business.

In addition to purchasing the SMART GRID’s hardware/software/installation, utility customers will, each year forever, pay a surcharge to their utility of approximately 9% of the cost of the paid-for SMART GRID in Colorado. Similar charges should apply in other jurisdictions.

The SMARTEST GRID is the one we have already paid for. Those big, new transmission lines cost between $3-5 Million per mile.

Power generated by roof-top solar systems stays in the neighborhood and doesn’t require fancy (EXPENSIVE) distribution and transmission system changes. Many currently installed meters can run backwards and thus already function as net meters when roof-top solar systems produce more power than the home uses, sending the balance into the grid to neighbors.

The best technology is that which truly lowers costs and increases benefits. Don’t expect any lasting cost reducing initiatives from your utility or most Public Utilities Commissions or even DOE.

Go sit in on a PUC hearing for a few minutes to catch the flavor of what goes on there. In Colorado we get to pay for many, many thousands of dollars for alcohol, plus hundreds of thousands for ‘off-site’ Board meetings, with food, and first class travel, including European luxury hotel and first class flights for executives/spouses.

Then, of course, after paying for their high living, we pay, in addition, approximately 9% extra, as our Commissions’ accept this as a legimitate cost of doing business and put it into the rate base.

SMART GRID? Smart for whom?
Ms Browning, our little group of retired engineers, utility lawyers and environmentalists welcome you to the upside down world of utility regulation and environmental challenges.

Keep at it and you too will very soon have your ‘aha moment’ as well.

BTW my current grid works just fine.

Comment from Jim Bell
November 6th, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Building new transmission lines is the last thing we should be doing. The first thing is to aggresively invest in efficient electricity use and installing PV panels on roofs and over parking lots in urban areas where the energy is most needed. And guess what, we can do it at a lower cost than staying with our dependence on imported electricity or imported fossil of nuclear fuels to produce it locally. If people pay for renewable electricity produced in their own communities, all the money they pay for it stays in their local economy in the form of new businesses and jobs. Paying for imported electricity, even if it is renewably generated, causes a negative cash-flow out of one’s community. For all the details, go to http://www.jimbell.com, click on “Green Papers”.

Comment from David Hampson
November 6th, 2009 at 8:39 pm

First of all 3 phase AC transmission is far more efficient than DC. Believe me, if DC was more profitable (i.e. efficient) we would be using that system. It is also very difficult for us to store electricity. There is a huge amount of effort going to “load balancing” instead. If a coal power plant decides to increase output by 20%, it may take an hour to get that going. So you need to predict who is going to be using that power, and flip those giant switches at the power line. Simultaneously, the dam will cut off the water supply to refill it’s reservoirs.

The power lines themselves don’t need to be upgraded. The water pipes that supply my home are just as low tech as they have been for hundreds of years. However, it is in the “load balancing” where the smart grid idea will help. Perhaps the same coal plant can get away with an 18% increase instead of a 20% increase. This could mean a good savings for the company. Only now are these saving cost effective. 20 years ago it wasn’t even possible.

Did you know that those energy efficient light bulbs are actually bad for the power companies? Power is actually a complex number, with a real part and imaginary part. The power company produces as much power as it can, but you meter can only measure the “real” part of the power. Those new spiral bulbs use less power, but they also change it so that part of it becomes “imaginary.” This is actually becoming a serious issue now because if you add up all the power from the meters in the homes, it is far less than the company is outputting, and it’s not transmission loss. It’s “phase loss.”

The 2/3 loss is rather misleading. If you look at the pure amount of energy in fuel, and compared to the electricity you get out of it, then it sounds about right, and on par with every other method of energy conversion. The world’s best solar panels are at a 60% loss, and so expensive that you will probably never recoup the energy put into making them in the first place.

I was very happy to see an Exxon station in California with it’s entire roof covered in solar panels! These guys will be the first to know when renewable is cheaper than fossil energy.


Comment from Thomas Lee Boles
November 6th, 2009 at 10:44 pm

No, detour, Edison would not recognize those 60 Hz generators. He maintained they were too dangerous to use and gave demonstrations of the ease of electrocution with alternating current. The trouble was, direct current was impossibly wasteful to transmit, but Edison wouldn’t admit it. If you want to find the real author of the AC system, look up Nikola Tesla. He claimed AC could be transmitted without wires; there are still arguments about whether he was just blowing smoke or really on to something. If solar power satellites are ever built, they will rely on his work to get the power down to Earth.

Comment from W Palmer
November 6th, 2009 at 11:20 pm

“up to two-thirds of the fuel burned to produce electricity is lost in the process of generation and delivery. Wasted. And at the other end of those lines, when the power reaches you and me? More wasted energy.” You are confusing loss and waste with “currently unavoidable costs of production”. It is not possible to convert all of the energy released from burning a fossil fuel into electricity. The energy not converted is a cost of production, just as the wages paid utility workers. We don’t term these costs “lost wages”, for we know that it is necessary to buy inputs to get the desired outputs.

It might also be worth considering how cheap electricity is. If we hired people to generate electricity by riding bicycles connected to a generators, each person could reasonably generating electricity at a rate of 100 watts. In ten hours of pedaling, one rider could generate 1 kwh of electricity. If we paid the rider $8 per hour, the cost of electricity would $80 per kwh. I currently pay 13 cents per kwh of electricity delivered to my house.

If you think generating electricity from coal “wastes” energy, I recommend that you trying burn a lump of coal in your house the next time you want some light or wish to use your washing machine. Obviously, electricity provides services for which no other energy form can reasonably substitute.

Comment from Steven Andersen
November 6th, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Thank you for your article. I’ve always know about the power loss in just the transmission lines. It is such a waste but not a consideration when we had cheap energy.

But times have changed and it’s time for de-centralized power. Taking responsibility for our own power, solar, wind, mini-hydro and other technologies is long over due. By having our own power generation we reduce the need of distant power plants. We can sell back our excess into the grid for those in our neighborhood who are still coming up to speed or don’t have the resources. But laws need to be changed so our excess power is not given back for free.

Also we must concentrate on efficiency. A power audit of your home can reveal some great ways to save. A first step is replacing that incandescent light bulb with a CFL, compact florescent light, or the newer LED, light emitting diodes. Also removing or turning off those vampires, plug in transformers, until needed. Later you can look at how you use those appliances. I applaud the clothes line and the simple broom. Low tech ways can save a buddle if we try.

Dad all ways said turn of the light when you leave the room. Perhaps we just need better habits as we monitor and take responsibility for our own energy usage.

Comment from zyxomma
November 6th, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Find a green ESCO in your hometown. I pay a premium so that all the power consumed in my apartment is clean and green. All my lightbulbs are full-spectrum compact fluorescents (and all my flashlights are wind-up LED), I have no energy hog appliances. I keep my radiators off, letting the ambient heat in the building seep through to my top floor flat. I use public transportation. Most important, I contribute NOTHING to agribusiness, by eating no meat, dairy, eggs, fish, GMO food, or commercially processed food, and eat minimal imported food. There is much we can do as individuals. Make a difference. Energy efficiency CAN begin at home. Health and peace.

Comment from dlsunshine
November 7th, 2009 at 4:14 am

I found this article a bit disconcerting. As a resident of Appalachia, I am VERY aware of where electricity comes from. Our beautiful, old, and irreplaceable mountains are being destroyed by mountain top removal for access to coal, forever destroying our landscape for temporary energy production. Our laborers and their families are dying from cancer due to working in nuclear and uranium enrichment facilities. Towns are becoming strike zones due to toxins from burning coal and radiation releases. The current power grids crisscross our lovely hills and valleys, looming like alien creatures, and have become an eyesore and a health risk. Environmental defense?? We certainly need it here.

I agree with those who have mentioned other options, from brooms and clotheslines, to centralized power options, including wind, solar, and, hopefully SAFE, biofuels. Homes need to be built with windows for cross breezes. I live in a house that was built in the 1800s and with open windows and doors, I did not need air conditioning all last summer. I do not recommend those spiral, florescent light bulbs, however, as they contain mercury and most people will put them in their garbage, which means they will end up in landfills. They also can have a negative effect on brain wave function. And if they break in your home, the cleanup must be treated like a toxic spill. All of this information is available Online.

There are many ways of producing energy from people power and even animal waste. In Japan, generators are powered by the revolving gates used in public transportation stations. How much energy might the NY subway system generate, for example? Energy can be harnessed from exercise machines in gyms. Methane gas can be harnessed from animal waste pools. There are many “smart” ways to produce energy today.

Most people are unaware that Thomas Edison advocated for each home being energy independent, actually off grid. He said he would put his money on “wind and solar any day. What a source of power!” We need to be smarter in many ways about how we view energy and how we use it. Let’s not continue to cause permanent destruction of the planet for temporary and fleeting energy production. We cannot replace our mountains, air, water, and soil, or the lost human life.

Comment from James Richard Tyrer
November 7th, 2009 at 4:16 am

Sorry to say this, but much of what you said isn’t exactly true. In places, you even contradict yourself.

This tends to illustrate the valid point that those that most vehemently advocate for a so-called “smart grid” don’t understand how the present distribution grid works or what it would actually be possible for it to do.

Miriam Horn’s statement about how the smart grid will “adjust demand” is Orwellian. Does this mean that we will be told when we can use electricity?

Comment from Tim Jeffryes
November 7th, 2009 at 8:10 am

Thanks so much for this.

Comment from Bill Grayson
November 7th, 2009 at 8:44 am

My wife and I try our best to conserve energy from using our solar clothes dryer to preparing some meals with a solar cooker. We try to get more people to follow suit. However in the south where we live most people just don’t get it and are content with wasting money (energy=money) doing things the same way that they have always done them.

Comment from jmccurle
November 7th, 2009 at 11:45 am

The Energy Information Agency – in the “Annual Energy Review 2008; Report No. DOE/EIA-0384(2008)” Release Date: June 26, 2009 (at: http://www.eia.doe.gov/aer/diagram5.html) provides the total Electricity Flow for 2008 in Quad BTUs. Conversion losses (making electricity from fuels) account for almost 2/3 of the energy inputs, transmission losses account for <2%, and we get to use up to 1/3.

Comment from jlitvlnvla
November 7th, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I just had solar panels put on my roof to supply my house with electricity. It cost only $1000 for the 12 solar panels to be put on my roof and for the next 17 years I will have to pay about $38 a month for my electricity, which is a lot less than the average amount I had to pay to NStar each month for my electricity. Any work that needs to be done on those panels for the next 17 years is done for free. In 17 years I can buy the panels outright for a small remaining fee, or groSolar can take the panels back. If the solar panels don’t provide the total amount of electricity I need I can still get some from NStar. But the amount I have to pay them will be almost nothing from what groSolar predicted. Also in the summer when there is more sun if I get more energy from the sun than I end up using, I get credit for that extra energy. For the low cost and the money that can be saved, along with helping make our electricity run on clean energy, I recommend contacting groSolar at 1800 374-4494 x3200 to help get more homes getting their electricity running on solar power. This will be great for our environment. If you want to check out their website just go to http://www.groSolar.com
I was one of three houses in the small town I live in that went to solar energy in October this year

Comment from engineer1503
November 7th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Smart grids are not the panacea being sold to us. Your statement that 66% of the energy used to make and transport electricity is correct. You omit the fact that today’s dumb grid is better than 95% efficient, transformers and line losses are around 97% efficient. The major loss in making electricity, not transporting it to the user. The best solar cells are only 20% efficient, most (including the ones on top of my home) are 10-12% efficient. A smart grid cannot change the laws of thermodynamics.

A review of today’s hardware and software for smart grids left me amazed. Most of the proposed hardware and software can be hacked by a high school student in an afternoon. Cyber security standards used are from the 80’s. And the Power Companies would be able to control a great portion of your home, for which they will bill you of course.

The data collection problem for smart grids and security of this data have not been addressed. Essentially we’ll read the meter of every home and business in the US 4 times per hour, 24 hours every day. The data center AC requirements alone will offset most of the energy savings. The data centers will also give a convenient access to simply crash the grid, should anyone ever circumvent the security. US “ON”, or US “OFF”.

Comment from Debra Weiss
November 7th, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Hey there, I welcome you to go to this website
it’s my own personal post on powerlines. Not only does it touch on some of the things you mentioned, but the health concerns of high-voltage transmission lines and household electricity, including the link to the World Health Organization’s 1984 study of the effects of exposure to electro-magnetic fields.

Comment from Michael Rogers
November 7th, 2009 at 3:12 pm

There is another VERY important consideration: The massive losses associated with the transmission of power FROM it’s source TO you.
I live by Diablo Neuclear plant which distributes the power generated with giant power towers and lines. These look like something from a Frankenstein movie, there are giant arcs continually across the insulators and into the air from the wires losing megawatts for hundereds of miles of these towers. IF these circuits were placed underground the losses would be minimal, these towers would not only no longer be at risk of vandalism but no longer besmearching our country. The cost would initially be high but there would be significant savings in operation and maintainance. The only reason they’re still here is good old inhertia–“that’s the way we’ve always done it”

Comment from Stardance
November 8th, 2009 at 11:00 pm

From every thing that I’ve read about the so-called “Smart Grid”, the technology will only be adopted if it profits the current electric power utility companies. Once adopted, it will be used to manage the grid to decrease the costs and increase the revenues of the utility companies. Neither they nor the regulatory agencies give one whit as to whether a “Smart Grid” will be of any particular benefit to the utility company’s customers.

The best investment of your money is not in the “Smart Grid”, it will be in whatever opportunity that you have, and whatever you can afford to invest in, generating the electricity that your household uses. You should not count on selling any surplus electricity to the local utility company. They have zero interest in giving you any “credit” for producing it, let alone in actually buying it from you.

On the horizon, however, there is some hope for mass storage of electrical power so that temporary operating surpluses from solar and wind generation can be stored for later use. One is the development of a capacitor which can hold 40 Farads indefinitely (http://www.grc.com/securitynow.htm Episode 177). Another is actually “old”, if updated, technology, storing the energy in a flywheel(s). The current systems have quite minimal energy loss in friction.

Comment from Dan McMillin
November 8th, 2009 at 11:45 pm

It seems amazing to me that the consumers are accepting the blame for “Wasted” energy. It is NOT the consumer which made inefficient appliances. It is the “Quick Buck” manufactures and utility companies which propagated this problem on the public !! This was done to propagate the “Power Grid” and the utility’s grip on the public.

Each square yard of most of the earth’s surface receives about 1000 watts of solar energy, or about 5000 to 9000 watt/hours of power. Most households only use about 5-7000 watt/hours per day. This, of course, requires an energy storage system (batteries).
Another detail is that solar panels are very inefficient – they only generate about 10-15% of the available energy hitting them – this means your solar panels would have to be the equivalent of 50 square yards (~7×7 yd square)in order to get this power in 1 hour. [a 3.5×3.5 yd sq would require 2 Hours of sun, etc. ]

Of course, to keep from wasting this 80-90% escaping energy, one could put a heat collector under the PV system and reclaim this energy! P.S. they don’t provide for that either (I checked )!!

In short, every house could provide enough energy for itself to NEVER need to get on the ‘GRID’ – it would be completely self-sustaining !!

Comment from Creative Ace
November 9th, 2009 at 10:00 am

Electricity 101 by Dominique Browning was a disappointing read. It was written in general marketing terms and told me nothing of how power grids operate, how they waste energy and how, in detail or in overview, innovation could change the model.

Completely sustaining households is the answer. Dan McMillin has it right. Of course big business and big energy will fight this like insurance industries are fighting health care reform. To give birth to new ways we have to let the old ways die, and powerful companies making lots of money aren’t about to just step aside for the good of the people or the planet.

Comment from dooberheim
November 9th, 2009 at 10:11 am

@Michael Rogers:

It’s impractical to put high voltage AC transmission lines underground. It greatly increases line losses due to interline capacitance. DC would work fine though (as a capacitor is an open circuit to DC).

@Dan McMillan:

Most households use between 20 and 30 kWH each day. It would require about 6 KW of panels to supply this.


Comment from Dave Kaspersin
November 9th, 2009 at 1:44 pm

“If Thomas Edison came back to life tomorrow, he would NOT recognize today’s electric grid”. Edison had nothing at all to do with today’s grid. Nikola Tesla invented and perfected our modern three phase alternating current systems. Edison was all for direct current and fought Tesla bitterly to stop his AC system.

Dave Kaspersin

Comment from engineering7562
November 9th, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Totally wasted, rambling article, but it is published under the heading Personal Nature. Dominique starts off talking about energy inefficiency in generation and transmission. And then she mentions consumer waste with examples of vacuums and streetlight. Is she suggesting removing all outdoor lighting?
Smart grid is no solution for the inefficient generation and transmission of power, but is may influence consumption. People are not going to sit around analyzing their electric bills to save a buck – they just want cheap, reliable power.
Smart grid will take decades to implement – every local power company needs to establish the network to communicate with meters, smart meters need to be designed and installed, and appliances need to be made smart so that the utility can monitor them and turn them off or to low power mode at will. There are 2 issues here – 1. who is going to force a standard protocal for this; 2. raises all kinds of privacy issues. As one other comment mentioned that is going to take a lot of data centers to acquire and store all the real time power consumption statictics for all the homes, businesses and even individual machines in the U.S.
Yes, smart grid is more than a power meter that tells you the time of day that you are consuming your power, as the quote from Miriam Horn said – it involves adjusting demmand.

Comment from George Berberian
November 9th, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Dear Ms. Browning,

It’s a good start, but there seems to be much more information and disinformation according to these comments. DC or AC? SMART Grid or no grid? Power loss or cost of business? As we see here, it’s all up to a person’s POV and opinion.

We’ll need a more detailed study with better information supported by hard, proven fact, before people start to come to an agreement as to the best way of fixing (or not touching) our current system of electrical generation and distribution.

I honestly believe it needs some form of upgrading and support a build towards clean, renewable energy. However what I’ve heard is that no matter how ambitious the plan to stop our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power, the U.S. couldn’t supply enough green energy to fulfill our needs. Of course, this isn’t a fact, just someone else’s opinion.

Comment from whiteneysa
November 9th, 2009 at 7:45 pm

I agree with the end of Jennifer Balz first comment.

Comment from Tom Harrison
November 9th, 2009 at 10:18 pm

The inefficiency of turning fuel into electricity we can use at the socket is stunning. As several other people writing comments have observed, the fact of loss in transformation of energy is inevitable — a law of physics (entropy). And yes, electricity is remarkably cheap despite the loss — this is why we heat our houses with gas or oil: burning it in our basement is a lot less inefficient.

However, the degree to which we lose the energy in fuels like coal, gas and others used to make electricity is what makes conservation such an important and immediate step we can all take. If 2/3 of the energy of coal is lost in the process of conversion to electrical energy, a savings of 100 Watts is as good as 300 Watts worth of coal.

The Smart Grid is an essential part of a modernized infrastructure, to be sure. Efficient means of generating electricity than burning stuff, like wind, solar, etc. require a more sophisticated system that is able to balance a large array of sources that act differently than today’s power plants. But the Smart Grid only enables sophisticated and widespread use of efficient renewable sources at scale.

All of the technology needed to bring cheap renewables online is present — we know this because more and more comes online every day. But it takes time.

Until then, there are many tools we can use to make dramatic reductions in our household (and industrial) consumption. In my house, we have cut our electrical use by more than half over the last several years. This year we’re focusing on reducing our fuel usage. Our house is well-lit, comfortable, and as nice as it was before we started looking for ways to save — nicer in many ways, in fact. Little that we have done costs a great deal. Yet we use less than half the energy we did before.

Conservation is not very sexy. But man, it’s incredibly easy and effective.

While we’re getting to a smart grid and an efficient grid, let’s not lose site of the opportunity to use far less than we do.

Tom Harrison

Comment from Dirk Faegre
November 10th, 2009 at 11:12 am

The writers complaining that solar capture is only about 10-12% efficient miss the whole point. Who cares how efficient an electric source is, if the fuel is free? Completely free! There is no charge for sunshine. Nada. Zip. That means, for all practical purposes, that the capture is 100% efficient (compared to any fuels that must be paid for). There is very little transmission loss from the roof to the inverter. More losses occur at the inverter … but so what? To get more juice, put more panels on the roof. It’s a pretty simple concept to understand.
Another thought too:
If you think electric energy generation is inefficient just do the calculation on moving a single person in a automobile (even a small car). By the time you calculate getting the fuel created (huge costs in mining it, refining it, shipping it) and then the energy cost of making the car, and then the lost energy in friction in the pistons, camshaft, gears, tires, etc. Let’s just say that by the time it actually moves you in the car, you’re down around LESS THAN 1% efficient. That makes electricity look spectacular. Make that “car” a Hummer or Ford Excursion and you’ll be way below 1%. Cars are a perfect example of lost energy efficiency.
And then …. have you ever considered how much energy losses (heating or cooling) are wasted in your home?! Have a professional energy audit done and I guarantee you’re in for shock. Many homes I’ve tested show losses directly to the outdoors (thru holes in your home — yep, you have tons of them) to be 50%. THAT you can fix easily and relatively cheaply. Go for this low hanging fruit first!!

Comment from CoCreatr
November 12th, 2009 at 9:41 am

One solution for the roughly 66% of primary energy lost as heat in electrical power generation is to use it, instead of blowing clouds into the environment or warming up rivers. Co-generation does work where the plant is close to factories or buildings that can use the heat. For the farther away places, smaller decentralized power plants may be an option. Heat your home and sell the electricity, total efficiency rises to 90%. Cooling by waste heat works well for larger installations, not at home.

For cars, the well-to-wheel energy figures are in the low percent range indeed, and they become about half that in city traffic, vs. highway. Electric battery cars suffer from the power plant conversion losses as well, hybrids and fuel cells are a workable bridge technology until most of our electricity comes from green sources. Then the electric cars can double as energy storage and may be used to feed back to the grid, albeit incurring the charger – battery – inverter losses.

Energy conversion is never perfect. Smart grids raise security issues, but we could limit it to remote control, not sensing, of designated circuits for heaters/coolers to give the utility a short break at peak times when the most costly means of generation kick in.

Most economical are still the Negawatts, the energy saved by improving usage habits and technology without giving up safety or comfort. The mercury escaping from compact fluorescents, even if not properly recycled, is less than the mercury blown about from a coal-fired plant to keep an equivalent brightness incandescent going. Which mercury uptake in the body is larger: if a CFL breaks and you upen the windows, then clean up vs. wearing down aan amalgam toh filling over the years?

Change the heat pump air conditioner to an inverter model and reduce its energy consumption by close to 50%. If you also heat with that thing, payback for trashing the old one may be within a few years, just from the kWh saved. Similar with the fridge, if it is non-inverter, you may have a hard time to get reliable annual consumption figures for it. The small kWh meter you plug it in to find out may be a worthwhile investment.

Solar and wind do work, and as was pointed out efficiency matters little if the primary energy is free, but it affects the size and cost of the initial installation. Problem is solar and wind are not always there when demand is, caling for storage. Tidal energy is more predictable and can power coastal cities with a short break every 6 hours.

Geothermal is underutilized. As we can drill for oil we can also drill for heat, and in many places the steam stream could drive a turbine genset with the waste heat available for heating or cooling. 24/7/365 for 40 years or more. Entirely within reach of current technology and economics.

Why are we not seeing more of this?

Comment from Paul Klinkman
November 15th, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Improving the electric grid can be a thorny engineering problem. Energy supply and energy demand have not particular reason to match. This means, with all options on the table, that we sometimes have to build in more energy supply, store more power (by not running the pondage behind hydroelectric dams late at night, for example), match the power generated to our transmission line capacity, store some of the power again near cities (a pumped hydro plant is at Storm King Mountain near NYC, for example), convince consumers to store power (in electric vehicles or by pre-cooling buildings 5 degrees at late night with air conditioning) at off-peak hours, and convince consumers large or small to use less electricity in brownout periods, and accept rare blackouts as a fact of human life. Right now such an energy planning system does not exist. No one thinks in these terms. You should.

Comment from Colin Meehan
November 17th, 2009 at 1:47 pm

As a number of people pointed out (Diego, Thomas Lee Boles, Dave Kasperin among others) Nikola Tesla invented and advocated strongly for AC power in a pretty vicious fight with Edison’s DC power system at the time. For those rare electric industry history buffs, Chicago’s World Fair (http://bit.ly/2HaYmr) of 1893 turned the tide of debate to the AC system now used around the world. As Dominique said though, there is no question that Edison would certainly recognize today’s grid even if he might be horrified that he lost the battle over AC vs. DC. Some version of the technology we use in our grid today – manual circuit breakers, large fossil fuel generators with low efficiency and so on – were around during Edison’s time and I think her comparison to Graham Bell and the telecom industry was very apt.

There are many opportunities for increased efficiency in our electric grid, from the potential of high voltage DC lines that commenters detour and Dan Butler mention, to smart appliances and building integrated solar power. The problem is that the majority of these technologies need a basic level of technological capability that our current grid does not have. Often times that mean having a smart meter installed in your home or business before you can fully take advantage of the technology, as is the case for Jim M and with my home in Austin.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with John Milton when he says we can achieve our efficiency and distributed generation goals without this kind of technology. It’s true that you or I can install a few panels on our home without any serious impact to the local grid. But when you and I and our family and neighbors and Wal-Mart and the weird guy down the street with a Tesla coil (http://bit.ly/1o6k4k) all have solar panels on our roof, the impact to the local grid can be large and our utilities will need better technology to help them manage all these new clean resources.

That means an upfront investment to develop these sources of clean energy, but it’s important to compare those costs to the alternatives: a large fossil fuel plant that spends millions of dollars on fuel annually, continued climate change and continued reliance on imported fuels. A recent survey of economists (http://bit.ly/1pcvAb) found the costs of doing nothing to reduce our fossil fuel consumption far outweigh the costs posed by climate change, national security, and health impacts. Some may see a smart meter installed on their home already but realize (as in my case) that they cannot yet use it because the utility is still in the process of developing their smart grid. Others will see the costs of increased transmission & smart grid fees, which while substantial, are far cheaper over the long run than building yet another power plant that will be dependent on growing coal or natural gas fuel costs.

James Richard Tryer’s “Orwellian” comment definitely caught my attention, but I think the he misinterpreted Miriam’s statement on demand response, which is a bit of utility jargon that packs a lot of punch. Demand response (or ‘adjusting demand’) refers to the potential to reduce demand either through an agreed payment to the customer or a seamless interaction with home appliances that the customer will never notice. It’s one of the best sources of clean ‘energy’ that the smart grid will help us tap because it saves customers money (since they use less energy through demand response) and as Dominique said it keeps utilities from running power plants on standby just to respond to demand peaks. This in turn saves customers even more money because their utility doesn’t have to invest in power plants that it will only run for 5 hours a year.

There are certainly issues to be worked out with upgrading our national transmission system, but few experts doubt that it is in serious need of updating and the good thing is these updates will increase efficiency in a number of ways. That means a cleaner environment, lower future energy bills and greater customer access to the grid. As the superhero saying goes: “with great power comes great responsibility.” We need to ensure that these improvements are used for the public benefit by increasing energy security, environmental health, and customer transparency.

Colin Meehan is a Renewable Energy Specialist at Environmental Defense Fund

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