Electrical grid: The concern

Few realize that our local electrical service is connected with an independent transmission company under the authority of the Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland Interconnection, know as PJM. On a practical level, this means that during much of the year when Exelon produces excess electricity, it is shipped east to out-of-state consumers. In the hot days of summer when our air conditioners are humming away we are importing electricity from eastern producers.

At the end of this year, the price of electricity in Illinois will be deregulated and controlled by market forces. With the dramatic rise in natural gas prices and the predicted supply shortage, there is concern about how high electrical prices will rise when our local air conditioners are struggling to keep us cool.

One of the reasons Illinois encouraged wind farms and efficiency is that these measures can help limit how high our electrical prices climb during times of heavy consumption. Of course, individuals and others can cut back on consumption when prices climb sharply.

As regional electrical demand increases and more generation is added, the grid will have to expand to accommodate the growth. Commonwealth Edison has already invested in grid upgrades; their service is increasingly digitally controlled. Future upgrades will be influenced by regional priorities set by PJM.

With federal incentives to increase supply, some industry insiders fear more cost-effective grid solutions will be overlooked or under utilized. Following deregulation, programs that rewarded utilities for promoting reductions in electrical demand went by the wayside.

The Electric Power Research Institute, the electric utilities’ own privately funded think tank in California, has expressed concern that “we need smarter electrical generation, transmission and delivery—not just more power.” In 2001, an EPRI spokesman expressed his concern “that the existing technology puts us on a collision course with the environment.”

Rather than merely expand the grid, they would prefer to employ new devices to reduce grid overload, improve grid reliability and save money (Steve Silberman, “Girding up for the power grid,” http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,44516,00.html).

The overall concept has been labeled the Smart Grid. It is described by Anderson and Boulanger (“Smart Grids and the American Way,” Mechanical Engineering, March, 2004). Smart energy involves the application of digital information technology to the grid. The authors believe the approach can “yield phenomenal gains in energy efficiency and local power generation.” They warn that the changes “can have disruptive impacts on the standard utility models that base revenue flows on gross energy throughout.” Utility profits come from selling electricity rather than selling efficiency.

Anderson and Boulanger describe the Smart Grid as “software-driven, infused with semiconductors and linked with broadband communications.” In this business model, the wireless communications industry would become important. The authors contend that since electrical grids can fail at high speeds exceeding human decision-making capabilities, the entire system should be automated.

They equate the new model to how the Internet functions. Through digital control, automated problem analysis and automated switching power flows would be routed around trouble spots rather than having personnel manually restart equipment to bring it back on line.

They describe the grid as over-invested in power plants and wires that are only used at around 50 percent of their capacity. If electrical demand were better managed, less money would be needed to expand the grid.

Next week’s column will take a closer look at some options.

From the Feb. 1-7, 2006, issue

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