How Many Power Grids are in the United States?
What do you imagine when you hear the term ‘the biggest machine on Earth’? If you are thinking of some supercomputer or a space rocket, you are off. Let us introduce you to the US Power Grid – delivering north of $400 billion of electricity each year across 7 million miles of transmission and distribution lines. Let’s look at some of the most interesting facts about the US Grid.
How the US Power Grids Work
Have you ever wondered about how electricity gets from the power plant to your home where you can turn it on by simply clicking the switch? The short answer is of course through the power lines across the country, but the process is actually more complicated than that.
When electricity is generated by one of the 30,000 energy power plants around the country, the connected transformers crank up the voltage so the electricity can travel long distances through the high-voltage transmission network.
Once it reaches the residential neighborhood, another transformer reduces the voltage to move the energy through smaller, lower voltage lines. Finally, electricity arrives at the poles that reduce it to a safe smaller amount that can be delivered to your home.
This process is run by the state utility providers, who own and operate the country’s electricity system. If a fault occurs on the network and the power goes out, you should contact your local utility company to come to fix it as soon as possible.
3 Grids in the US
The United States does not actually have a national energy grid. There are three separate energy networks in the country’s power grid system, split into three regions. They operate independently of each other and exchange very little energy. The Eastern grid and the Western grid mimick the division along the Rocky Mountains (‘The Rockies’) while the state of Texas has its own electric grid.
The Eastern Interconnection or Grid comprises the largest area of the country, from the Great Plains territory (excluding most of Texas) eastward to the Atlantic coast.
The Western Interconnection or Grid comprises the area west of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains to the Pacific coast.
Electric Reliability Council of Texas ( (ERCOT) Grid
ERCOT covers most of the territory of Texas.
While all the systems run at an average frequency of 60Hz, they are not in sync with one another and therefore cannot be directly connected. Does that matter? Well, sort of.
The operation and maintenance of power infrastructure is an extremely capital-heavy industry and just like any other capital-heavy industry, its consolidation would unlock a number of efficiencies – including a $47.2 billion a year savings on utility bills.
Reason for US Power Grid Failure
A wide variety of events can cause disruption of the electrical grid. Severe weather is by far the most common cause of an outage, with costs to the United States economy adding up to $33 billion annually. How can weather cause disruption to such powerful technology?
For instance, a lightning strike can hit the electrical infrastructure, or strike a tree which may fall onto the power lines. Floods and heavy rains can cause damage to both above-ground and underground electric equipment.
Apart from the weather, other major causes of local outages are car accidents, when a car runs into an electricity pole or an animal climbing onto the equipment and damaging it. The final (and the most uncommon) reason is electricity supply shortages – which is exactly what happened in California last year.
Improvement on the Reliability of the US Power Grid
Despite a giant effort (and substantial financial investment), the reliability of the United States power grid is not without its downfalls. Outages have been on the rise in recent decades, threatened by the seasonability of Californian wildfires and extreme temperatures.
Most of today’s grid technology was built a long time ago (in the 1950s and 1960s) with a 50-year life expectancy. The U.S. Energy Administration reports that the average utility customer in 2016 had 1.3 power interruptions and their total blackout time-averaged four hours.
In addition, the big changes in the energy industry threatening the reliable functioning of the grid are just coming – America will have to figure out how to retire the country’s non-renewable power plants and instead, plug thousands of smaller, distributed energy generators (solar panels and windmills) into the grid.
To solve the problems, the big players in the country’s energy industry are starting to talk about a “smart grid,” a digitally connected energy system, that is monitored and balanced automatically.
Microgrids, small systems able to generate their own energy independent of the main grid are also increasing in popularity. Central Hudson Gas & Electric, with 300,000 customers in New York plans to build a network of microgrids for NY facilities that need reliable power. Other areas are catching on. One thing is for certain – ‘the biggest machine on Earth’ is set to get even more powerful in the coming years.
How many power systems are there in North America?
The US power grid is actually divided into three major regions, forming America’s energy system – the Western interconnection, covering the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains; the Eastern interconnection, operating east of the Rocky Mountains; and Texas. Though connected, they are run independently by different grid operators.
Who owns the power grid?
The US grid is nearly entirely privately owned. In each region, a private company can own the production (generation) plants and/or transmission and distribution infrastructure.
With the exception of the Texan grid, the energy market in America is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that sets the reliability standards for the grid operation. In addition to the federal oversight, every state in America has a government agency that ensures the Owners are delivering safe and reliable service to residents.
Can everyone in America switch energy providers?
Only 18 US states have deregulated their energy markets, allowing for residential and business competition in retail electricity. It means that if you live in one of these areas, your electricity is not regulated by the utility companies and you can shop for electricity plans and rates offered by other suppliers on the market.