Since The Electrical Grid Isn't Sexy, It Has A NIMBY Problem
Every year Bill LeBlanc, a senior adviser with Colorado-based E Source, hits the streets with a video camera to chat with average Americans about energy. He usually starts with the basics like, "what exactly is electricity?"
Through those videos he finds that most utilities customers don't really understand electricity or most of them don't really care to. That's a challenge for the nation's aging electrical grid. Public knowledge will likely play a bigger role in finding solutions to challenges like reliability, expansion and efficiency.
There are occasions though when greater knowledge actually leads to extra roadblocks for utilities.
Chelsey Crittendon and her neighbor Casey Lemieux take great pride in their little corner of Thornton, Colorado. On a tour of their neighborhood, the two picked up trash from sidewalks and eagerly pointed out the many green spaces. But, their smiles faded when they reached the end of their block. Right across from Lemieux's house is an empty field where their subdivision meets several others.
"They want to put a four-acre, 200-kilovolt substation right in the middle of seven communities," Lemieux said.
Utilities need substations every few miles in order to take the high-voltage power from long distance power lines and step it down to lower voltages that we can use it in our homes. When you get too far away from these substations, electricity becomes less reliable.
Betty Merzayi, Transmission Planning Manager with Xcel Energy, said that's starting to happen in Thornton.
"We're already having problems with our overloads on existing systems," Merzayi said, adding the utility has been trying to get a substation built in that neighborhood for about 10 years.
Part of the reason it has taken so long is few residents want something like that in their backyards. Crittendon and Lemieux worry about lowered property values, danger to children, and potential (yet unproven) health effects from long-term exposure to electro-magnetic fields.
"Why do they feel they need to build in any neighborhood, not just our neighborhood but any neighborhood," Crittendon asked.
More substations mean greater reliability. These critical building blocks of our electrical infrastructure are not going away anytime soon, even if they are intrusive. Yet, the overall problem is much bigger than this.
The grid is old and needs updating. There is another technology which could achieve that double-whammy of greater grid knowledge and fewer power outages, the long talked about smart grid city.
Bill LeBlanc of E Source said so-called smart meters in people's homes instantly tell a utility when power is out in an area.
"They can see that immediately on a computer," he said. "They can go out and figure out how to fix it."
Even these advances though are slowed by the public's interest and knowledge. As one woman quips in one of LeBlanc's E Source videos when asked about her interest in a two-way communicating thermostat for her home, "really, I just want a two-way communicating boyfriend at this point."
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.