Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 3 – Electrical Generation and Transmission, and RTOs

Electrical energy has probably been the greatest single technology that has improved our Standard of Living.  Before I delve more into how this has affected our Quality of Life, an overview of how this system works is in order. 

Our electricity grid is where our food distribution system was before refrigeration” Elliott Negin.  Quite a profound statement since electrical energy is so central to our lives.  Despite the increase in wind and solar renewable energy systems, the electrical grid in this country is still based on a system that started to be put in place during the 1870s.  It is predicated on the use of centralized power plants that transmit electricity through lines across the country. One problem with transmitting electrical power is that it loses energy during the transmission.  Local lines lose around 4%, while high energy transmission on distances of 300 miles only lose about 2%.  Electrical power is transmitted between 155,000 – 765,000 volts depending on the distance to be covered.  Voltages are stepped up for transmission and stepped down in when the power reaches the area it is to be used (think multiple sub-stations).  The grid itself is fickle and complex, especially when one considers the difficulty of transmission coupled with trying to estimate supply and demand.  Small scale local power grids began as early as 1882 with the national grid established in 1938. 

The grid is not simply a system where electricity that is produced is simply dumped into the grid when it is produced for everyone to tap into as they need it.  The electricity has to be directed to a location.  The complexity of the national grid has increased since locally distributed power from rooftop solar panels and local wind generators have connected to the grid.  Local distributed systems are more variable in reliability compared to larger MW systems.  Yet, with increasing electrical demand the need to use local systems is essential and if managed through modern computerized technology using real-time data would allow a more resilient and flexible grid.   The idea of RTOs (Regional transmission Organizations) was introduced in a previous post (Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 1) which is the realistic way that power is transmitted within the grid.    

Most energy utilities work on a triple goal – reliability of energy delivery, financial viability over the long term, and social and environmental responsibility.  To move beyond the current grid system will not be simple or cheap. Until the whole system is either extensively upgraded and modernized the potential for power failures within the grid system is a real problem.  There are two terms used to describe disruptive power interruptions – Brownouts and Blackouts.Most computer system need to be plugged into voltage smoothing devices (to ensure consistent voltage) that protect from voltage drops and spikes, the latter having the potential to destroy computerized systems.  

brownout is an intentional, or unintentional, drop in voltage within the electrical power supply delivery system. If comptrollers of the system see a potential load emergency, they will Intentional reduce power outputs (under-voltage) to prevent a power outage known as a blackout. When voltage is quickly restored, the resulting voltage spikes (over-voltage) can be quite damaging to unprotected computer components and data systems.

A blackout, however, is a complete interruption of power within a given service area.   Blackouts can occur without warning and last for extended periods.  Reasons for blackouts are usually caused by catastrophic equipment failure or severe weather.   While rare in the USA but more common in many less developed countries, rolling blackouts are controlled and usually preplanned interruptions of service. Power companies may deliberately cause rolling blackouts for numerous reasons, most often it is because the peak demands cannot be met by existing supply within a region. Rather than blackout a whole region for a longer period, the blackout is shared for short periods throughout the service area. To emphasize the fragility of the current aging electrical grid, the great 2003 blackout throughout Northeast North America (southeastern Canada and eight northeastern states) lasted for up to two days in some areas and affected more than 50 million people.  Apparently, some tree branches in Ohio interacting with high voltage power lines tripped emergency fuses that caused unexpected voltage spikes, which then created a cascade of system failures across the region.

RTO (Regional Transmission Organizations)

One of the ways that local utility companies manage power supply stability is through RTOs (operators that coordinate, control, and monitor multi-state electric grid systems), which can be a variety of direct and indirect brokerage systems, that sell and trade electricity through complex wholesale RTO market systems.  The complexity may ensure stable electrical supply, but also causes high fluctuations in market pricing that can be restrictive for smaller and rural community utilities who have minimal electrical energy generation systems they control. 

Remember the triple line goal (given above) of most utility companies is reliability of energy delivery, financial viability over the long term, and social and environmental responsibility.  The big problem with ensuring a stable supply through RTOs is that most local utilities have to place environmental responsibility subservient to supply stability and price viability.  This inevitably means that air quality suffers.  An electrical system on a grid does not differentiate where its electrons are derived – fossil fuel or renewable source.  You may live in an area that generates completely renewable electricity but if it is a part of an RTO, your utility may be competing for electrons, that when peak supply is needed, the electrons come from a fossil fuel source. Fossil fuel derived electricity comes with a high cost in air quality, especially in areas where they are generated or areas downwind of those generation systems.  The social and environmental costs are not shared.  Coupled with other fossil fuel problems from oil and gas extraction and the burning of gasoline and diesel, air quality can become quite harmful and even deadly for some.  The costs of using fossil fuels and the reduction in the quality of life, while trying to maintain a standard of living are the focus of the next post.