We Never Think That Much About The Electrical Grid - Until It Fails
If you peer behind an electrical plug in your house, you'll find a massive network of transmission lines, power plants and a whole army of people bringing power to the socket in real-time, 24 hours a day.
The power grid is the largest machine in the world. Most of the time it operates invisibly, in the background, but when it fails, it often does so memorably. To most people, those outages seem like isolated events, but when you look at the trend, they're not.
Research conducted by Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, shows major power outages have been on the rise since the 1980s, even as we've become increasingly reliant on electricity for every aspect of our lives. Traffic lights and gas stations run on electricity, so do smartphones and ATMs.
"The rate of these outages has increased dramatically every five years," Amin said.
He remembers the first time he witnessed a major blackout, in New York City in 1965 — long before our current era of technology dependence. For Amin, it was shocking to watch how quickly society ground to a standstill.
"Then we appreciate the essential underpinning of life-enabling, life-sustaining infrastructure that the power grid is," he said.
When an outage is over, though, more often than not people forget. After all, the system does work most of the time. But Amin said we're at a critical juncture. The grid is old and falling apart. It's threatened by more frequent severe weather and new demands from technology and renewable power.
"The existing system is vulnerable to a wide range of disasters, natural disasters, intentional attacks," Amin said.
One of those vulnerabilities was demonstrated on a blustery, cold January day in 1998 when the rain turned to ice in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. The region is known for brutal winters, but had never seen a storm like this. Overnight, 3 inches of ice fell, coating everything.
I was 9-years-old at the time living in Canton, New York. My mother, Lynn Shepherd, recalled "waking up in the night and hearing explosions outside."
"When the top of a tree comes off and it just splinters, the snapping is really an explosion, " she said. "It's like a gunshot."
When the sun rose the next morning not a single power pole was still standing. Our lights didn't work, neither did the heat or the stove. We had no connection at all to the outside world except a small, battery-powered radio, and the news coming from it was bleak.
The ice storm had left four million people without power in the dead of winter. The huge, steel towers carrying the transmission lines had doubled over under the weight of the ice, as though they had been punched in the gut.
"It made the system seem very vulnerable," Shepherd said, looking back on it.
In the 15 years since that storm that's a feeling many Americans can relate to, looking at the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the 2011 southwest blackout, and the 2003 blackout in the northeast - the largest in our nation's history.
Until very recently, few people were even paying attention to large-scale grid reliability. The federal government still doesn't require all utilities to track and share reliability data with the public. In 2013, the Energy Information Administration did start collecting national reliability metrics, but utilities only have to report that information if they already have it, and less than half of them do.
If you want more complete information about how reliable the power is in your state or community, you have to request the data from your public utilities commission — if they even collect it — and then muddle through huge data sets, often in unusable formats.
University of Minnesota researcher Amin points out that if we don't know how bad reliability is, it's hard to persuade the government and utilities to spend money to fix the problems.
"The word hasn't gone out there to the real stakeholders, the people of our nation," he said, adding that the problems are only becoming more urgent.
"I don't want to be a senior citizen and live in the dark. So it's personal, it's for selfish reasons that I'm looking at how we can improve the system in the next two decades."
The New York ice storm in 1998 ended up taking out power for two weeks, which made basic things like drying clothes and making food monumental tasks. My family survived mostly unscathed, but others didn't, which prompted plenty of reflection about what went wrong and how to avoid a similar situation in the future.
For some, it even led to questions about the electricity system as a whole, and whether we should really rely so heavily on a machine so few of us understand.
My mom recalled thinking at the time, "should you be on the grid or not?"
In the past, the choice was black and white — on the grid or off — but today, the grid itself is being reinvented by new technologies that change the way we produce, distribute and use electricity. The lines between on and off are getting blurrier. That reinvention will only happen if we all pay a little bit more attention to the massive energy infrastructure we all depend on, and not only when we find ourselves in the dark.
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.