Wind and Solar Power: Why the energy isn’t currently flowing

Why the energy isn’t currently flowing –

A Brief Look Into Some US Power Transmission Network Issues.

People walking in New York City during the bla...

Image via Wikipedia

Shortly after 4 pm ET on August the 14th 2003, more than fifty million North Americans suddenly found themselves without power in one of the most widespread blackouts in the history of “electrical civilization”. A number of major cities, including New York, Cleveland, Toronto and Ottawa, came to a standstill as traffic lights, office buildings, elevators, subways, railroads, airports and harbors shut down. This blackout extended over 24,000 square miles, from the Canadian province of Ontario, to Chicago, and all the way over to and down the Atlantic coast. In all, eight US states and most of Ontario went dark for more than 12 hours. The cause of this black-out was traced to a grid overload in Ohio, that set in motion a cascading sequences of emergency shut-downs all over the North, cutting power to millions (“The Great 2003 North America Blackout”).

Official records on the effects of the 2003 blackout to individuals are scarce. Nevertheless, records show that fatalities have been directly linked to similar outages around the world, fatalities ranging from vehicle accidents to the failures of life sustaining medical equipment due to power losses. Personally I am motivated to ensure that my family is safe from the possible deadly effects of a next black-out due to power grid failure.

While the ever increasing need for more power is pushing power utilities and ordinary citizens around the world to explore alternative energy production options, the biggest obstacle to making reliable clean and sustainable electricity available to the masses is the inadequate state of global power transmission networks.


To fully understand the grand scope of the problem one must look at the history of power and transmission itself, the current networks, the growing need, existing and new technology, regulations, the cost factors, environmental impact concerns, and finally human health concerns and social resistance. The pertinent issues are way to numerous and broad to treat in a single sitting, so to speak; therefore, for our limited purposes we will be looking at:

  • The current state of the grid;
  • Our energy needs;
  • Proposed developments in the US;
  • Some obstacles to progress.

To start our exploration of this very energetic subject, it is important to understand something of the issue at hand. According to the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability of the US Department of Energy (DOE), electricity is a secondary energy source, which means that we get it from the conversion of other sources of energy. We use resources like coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear power and other natural resources, called primary sources, to produce electric power. These primary energy sources we use to make electricity can be renewable – such as wind or solar – or non-renewable, but electricity itself is neither renewable nor non-renewable (US Department of Energy).

A transmission substation increase the voltage...

Image via Wikipedia

The “grid”, or electrical transmission system, is the interconnected collection of power lines and associated equipment for moving electric energy at high voltage between points of supply, and points at which it is delivered to other electric systems, or transformed to a lower voltage for use by customers.

According to the US DOE, when the electric system was originally conceived of over 120 years ago (starting with Pearl Street Station in NYC in 1885), power generating plants were isolated and served dedicated small groups of customers. Over the next 50 years, “utilities” began linking multiple generating plants into isolated systems. By the mid-1930’s, it was clear that connections between systems could bring additional reliability. Interconnected systems provided access to back-up generation in times of equipment failure, unexpected demand, or routine maintenance, as well as improved economics of scale through reserve sharing and access to diverse energy resources. By the mid-1960’s, the electric system had been transformed from isolated generators and small regional systems to an integrated national “grid” (Brown).


There are currently over 140 million consumers of electricity in the USA alone. They can be divided into three categories: residential consumers (122 million customers; 37% of electricity sales); commercial consumers (17 million entities; 35% of electricity sales); and industrial consumers (less than one million entities; 28% of electricity sales). According to the DOE, the average household’s electricity usage varies significantly, throughout both the day and the year. Typically, electricity usage will peak in the summer due to air conditioning load. During the day, electricity demand will tend to be greatest in the late afternoon when people return home from work, when they adjust their thermostats, and begin preparing dinner. The amount of electricity a customer uses over time is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). On average, a typical household in the United States uses 920 kWh of electricity per month, which is about 11,000 kWh per year (US DOE).

In this constantly fluctuating demand for power lies one of the greatest challenges of managing the production and delivery of power, and the grid: power cannot be cheaply or efficiently stored, and unlike water which also “flows” through a delivery system, power is not readily available, waiting to pour out of the line when one flips a switch.

Power is in constant movement throughout the entire grid system all of the time – cycling back and forth – at a very high rate of speed known as Hertz. Every switch that is flipped “on” in actual fact adds another small circuit to the existing circuitry of the grid. The more circuits that are added to the grid, the larger the total grid size becomes through which power needs to be cycled back and forth; the larger the grid, the more electricity needs to be put onto the grid to balance the expanding demand. Now, add to this constantly varying “grid size” the load use, or the electric energy value (Watts) that is constantly being drawn out of the network by appliances converting electricity into work, and it is clear that more electricity has to be added onto the grid immediately to make up for the electricity being drawn off of the grid (Brown).

The demand for electricity fluctuates greatly from moment to moment and draws down different loads at any given time; a fluctuating demand that in-turn has to be balanced out by equal production from power generation facilities to keep the cycling of electricity in the grid network constant. Controlling production to keep the power balance is tricky and requires careful management of resources. Power stations cannot be turned on or off at the drop of a hat, and neither can their production output be revved up or dialed back instantaneously.

The history of US transmission lines is a very long and tangled mess of red tape and of differing grades and Voltages of cabling. Like a crazed spider web the network has spread across the continent connecting Mexico to Alaska and Orange County to New Hampshire. Ever since the very beginning of transmission, as power networks extended from simple localized systems in the late1800s, to locally inter-connected systems by the early 1900s, to state wide systems by the 1920s, governmental bodies have been playing catch-up trying to regulate the growing industry (Brown).

Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid - THE GRID

Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid - THE GRID


Currently the industry is regulated under the “Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act” (PURPA) of 1978, and the 1992 Energy Policy Act (EPACT). Under the Act of 1978, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order, Order #888, which unbundled the power monopolies and forced the creation of Independent System Operators (ISOs) and eight independent regional transmission organizations (RTOs) to coordinate the transmission grid.

The primary functions of ISOs and RTOs are to manage in real time and on a day-ahead basis the reliability of the bulk power system, and the operation of wholesale electricity markets within their footprint areas. ISOs and RTOs do not own transmission assets; they operate or direct the operation of assets owned by their members.

The resultant grid that we have today is an interconnected network of about 5,700 operational power plants with a generation capacity of at least one megawatt or more each, and more than 200,000 miles of high-voltage AC and DC power lines, operating at voltages ranging from 220 Volt to 765 Kilo-Volt. Together these facilities encompass 950,000 megawatts of potential generating capability and nearly 3,500 utility organizations. According to the DOE, the operational power plants in the US vary in age from 5 years old to 119 years old for our oldest hydroelectric power plant (US EIA).


The replacement and upgrading of aging generation facilities is becoming more and more controversial. The nuclear disaster in Japan has effectively brought the further development of nuclear power generation in the US to an end. Power generation through coal burning is also under scrutiny as efforts to re-invent the process and to put in place clean-coal plants with emissions sequestering and air-scrubbing technologies flounder in red tape.

While power generation is an issue, the greatest challenge and the veritable ticking time bomb is the rest of the grid.

According to the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), power system operators often describe two elements of electric system reliability: adequacy and security. Adequacy is the ability of the electric system to supply the electrical demand, and security is the ability of the electric system to withstand sudden disturbances, such as electric short circuits or unanticipated loss of system facilities. The challenge of the day is to shore up the weak sections of the existing grid, while expanding to meet increasing demand (US DOE).

Rebuilding and upgrading current lines to provide reliability is key, but to do so costs on average about $400,000 per mile. According to 2009 figures, installing new power lines to provide a bigger and better grid can run anything from as low as $285,000 per mile for a single circuit line, to as much as $1.71 million per mile for a double circuit line of medium voltage installation up to 345kV. In a recent proposal to build 134 miles of 500kV lines for a solar array in California, the “per mile” cost of the project was $10 million (Brown).


As if the financial challenges are not enough, the most severe and most vigorous opposition to grid development has come from environmental and citizen groups objecting to the installation of power grid equipment in their communities. In some cases these oppositions have been so broad and so aggressive that, under pressure from lobbyists, legislation has been passed prohibiting any future developments of the grid infrastructure in some areas (“FAQ for Health Effects”).

The future demand for electricity in the USA is estimated to grow exponentially, while the future for the infrastructure does not look as positive. A small –very, very small– consolation is that more and more small-scale consumer based self-generation projects are coming online as regulations are formulated and barriers to installation are lifted. Subsidies in the form of energy credits and tax rebates are helping to speed along the process as well. Ideally, if every consumer could produce as much electricity as it actually consumes, thus becoming energy neutral, then the grid might not need an overhaul at all. Think of all the money we could save!

Sunpower Corp Solar Cells

Sunpower Corp Solar Cells

Untapped solar energy to the magnitude of gigawatts of power is literally within reach. However, such solar solutions to the nation’s energy needs would require a host of investments, including high-energy, long-distance, direct current transmission lines to take the power where it’s needed most (“Sunny Outlook:”).


Solar energy isn’t the only “source in abundance” we have at our disposal. In April of this year President Barak Obama had the following to say on wind power: “Wind power isn’t the silver bullet that will solve all our energy challenges – there isn’t one. But it is a key part of a comprehensive strategy to move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels to one that relies on more homegrown fuels and clean energy” (Musial and Ram).

Wind turbine

Image via Wikipedia

This is the opening quote from a very insightful article written by Walter Musial and Bonnie Ram on the potential of large-scale offshore wind power generation in the United States. According to Musial and Ram, under current conservative assumptions about the capabilities of the transmission network, fossil fuel supply, and supply chain availability, the US could feasibly build 54 gigawatt of offshore wind power generation capacity by 2030. This is totally in line with the targets set by the US DOE in July 2008, which is to see 20% of all US power produced by wind energy, by the year 2030 (“Offshore Wind”).

While the US leads the world in installed, land-based wind energy capacity, it has almost no significant offshore wind generating capacity to date. Nevertheless, about 20 projects, representing more than 2,000 MW of capacity, have been in the planning and permitting process for some time…

In spite of the potential and benefits to the nation, the development of offshore wind as an energy source still faces several significant challenges and barriers that range from technology limitations, high costs, regulatory and institutional “uncertainties”, to potential environmental and social risks. It seems that a sustained, focused national research and development initiative is needed to address these challenges and to correctly inform decision makers and public policy.


It is almost unimaginable that large scale projects like off-shore wind farms and commercial solar arrays in the desert still face the almost insurmountable barrier of limited grid resources. These issues will just simply need to be addressed. Currently, according to the US EIA, national annual electricity transmission and distribution losses in the US average about 7% of the total transmissions, and while this is not wildly out of the ordinary, the real challenge as we noted earlier, lies in replacing under-capacity and aging grid equipment to be able to handle the new and increasing gigawatt scale load demand of the future (“Annual Energy Review”).

Will new technologies improve grid transmission capabilities? This is part of the question. Whether these technologies will be available in good time to prevent another larger crisis is the more pertinent issue. New technologies are beginning to significantly improve transmission; this is true. Improved communications and sensor technologies could definitively help the grid run more efficiently. Better system information for all grid participants will enable better controls and allocation and could possibly help prevent future catastrophic blackouts (Brown).

According to Matthew Brown of the National Council on Electricity Policy, “Devices with complex electronics can provide better control of the grid while futuristic developments like High- temperature superconductivity offers potential for many applications if costs and operating challenges can be managed. More viable storage technologies, using stored magnetic energy or flywheels to store mechanical energy, may in future make an enormous difference in how the grid and load demand is managed at peak hours” (“Electricity transmission”).


A space age-like option to help alleviate grid-stress does exist and has long been waiting in the wings, unused. Developed shortly after the First World War, Microwave Power Transmission (MPT) involves the use of microwaves to transmit power through the atmosphere without the need for wires. It is an interesting and cost-effective option because microwave devices offer the highest efficiency of conversion between DC-electricity and microwave radiative-power and back again. DC-energy is the type of energy produced directly from wind turbines and solar arrays, and it would not need any additional “preconditioning to phase” to be transmitted.

While MPT technology is already being used with great success in developing economies like China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and in Brazil, here in the US, microwave frequencies are currently still reserved by Federal regulations for use by the telecommunications industry and the military… (“Analyzing Microwave Power”).


The obstacles facing future grid redevelopment are numerous and include very real issues like financial constraints, apparent lack of industry incentives, current legislative restrictions, resistance from environmental groups, and concerns over human health and well-being. Ironically, the need for more energy and technology seems to butt head-on against current global concerns over better quality of life issues, which inevitably demand more energy resources…

Despite strong global efficiency improvements, average household consumption will continue to increase exponentially in the next decade. This increased demand highlights the need for a deep and significant re-imagination of America’s energy future. Fortunately there is a growing awareness of the importance of renewable and sustainable energy sources in the USA. The common notion is that unlike green energy, fossil fuel resources are finite and in a state of depletion. Also, the outcry over the use of these environmentally “destructive” and polluting fuel sources does help to hasten the day for super scale green energy generation, but we are not there yet.

Hopefully, the critical deficiencies of the current grid, along with pressure to provide for the every growing demand, will push regulatory reforms and create new initiatives. Significant financial co-partnerships, with equal public and private sector involvement, are also needed if we are to ensure an energy sane future for our children’s children.

To address the challenges of managing the future grid in a responsible and sustainable way will require creative thinking and innovative action. One thing is certain: successful future sustainability demands the active participation of all – each one of us. No one person can afford to remain “just a consumer” any longer. Hopefully, as we all take ownership and pull together, we can get the “juices” flowing to empower a “brighter” future for generations to come.

Works Cited:

  • “Analyzing Microwave Power Transmission & Solar Power Satellite Systems”. Aruvians R’search. Web. Saturday July 16, 2011.
  • Biello, David. “Sunny Outlook: Can Sunshine Provide All US Electricity?”. Scientific American. September 2007. Web. Saturday July 16, 2011.
  • Brown, Matthew. Electricity transmission: a primer. Denver, CO. National Council on Electricity Policy, 2004. Web. Tuesday July 12, 2011.
  • “FAQ for Health Effects of Transmission Power Line Magnetic and Electric Fields 2002”. Power Line Task Force, Inc. Web. Tuesday July 19, 2011.
  • “Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout in the United States and Canada: Causes and Recommendations”. US – Canada Power System Outage Task Force. Web. Saturday July 16, 2011. “Illustrated Glossary: Transmission Lines”. US Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Web. Monday July 18, 2011.
  • Musial, Walter (NREL) and Bonnie Ram (Energetics). Large-Scale Offshore Wind Power in the United States – Executive Summary. NREL/TP-500-49229. September 2010. Web. Saturday July 16, 2011.
  • “Power Transmission Congestion Areas”. The Piedmont Environmental Council. Web. Saturday July 16, 2011.
  • “Solar: AREVA Completes Acquisition of US Solar Company Ausra”. Ausra Inc. Web. Saturday July 1, 2011.
  • “The Great 2003 North America Blackout”. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Digital Archives. Web. Monday July 18th, 2011.
  • The Smithsonian Institution, Powering a Generation of Change. Smithsonian Institution Online. 2002. Web. Friday July 22, 2011.
  • US Department of Energy (DOE). Web. Saturday July 16, 2011.
  • “US Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review, August 19, 2010”. USA Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration. Web. Tuesday July 19, 2011.


About Johan Bester

I am a 5th Generation African of mixed European descent - born in South Africa; And currently living it up in the USA till the Dear Lord takes me somewhere else some day... I am happily married for life, and my aim is to be a successful follower of Jesus. Despite being a very experienced realist, I do have moments of idealism when I believe in good and in people. I believe in hard work, right and wrong, taking care of what needs to get done right now, commonsense, “doing the right thing ‘cause it’s the right thing to do”, preparing for a “rainy day”, and watching your own back, amongst other.
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