4. The Grid

4. The Grid August 21, 2010

America’s electrical power grid is a much more complicated thing than the systems we have for distributing drinking water or handling wastewater.

The technology of our water system isn’t wholly different from what the Romans used. It’s basically, to quote the late Sen. Ted Stevens, “a series of tubes.” Those tubes were built with about a 30-year life span and we’ve been using them for more than 50 years, so they need replacing and upgrading. The task is a bit more complicated than just replacing old pipes with new ones, but only a bit — that’s really what it boils down to.

DaGrid The power grid is a different animal. The wires and other components of this system are all similarly decades beyond their intended useful life span, but upgrading and renovating this system will be much more complicated than just replacing old wires, transformers and circuits with new ones. From what I understand (which isn’t much — although I think I’ve finally figured out the difference between HVDC and HDTV), the technology for Power Grid 2.0 is still something of a work in progress.

The good news is that engineers need work too. So let’s put them to work figuring this out and making it a reality, now, rather than putting it off for another decade so that it becomes a matter of overcoming actual chaos instead of a matter of averting potential chaos.

Because what I do understand about Power Grid 1.0 is that it isn’t going to cut it much longer. It’s barely hanging in there now. America’s electrical power grid was a marvelous technological achievement in its time, but its time was the early 20th Century. It wasn’t intended or expected to last this long or to handle the workload it is now required to handle and the strain of that age and workload is beginning to show. We see this strain in pollution and in money-burning inefficiency.

Something like 6 to 8 percent of the electricity we generate simply gets lost in transmission, wasting tens of billions of dollars every year.

We should point out that this money — tens of billions of dollars every year — is money we’re currently spending, right now, in return for which we get nothing. Well, nothing except increased air, water and greenhouse gas pollution. So for anyone capable of long-term thinking, the cost of upgrading to a less-wasteful system makes sense. We’re not just renting this country, after all, we’re here for the long term, so capital improvements will pay for themselves over time.

Another off-the-books cost of the current grid is that it doesn’t easily accommodate the decentralized and distant nature of most renewable energy production. Those offshore wind farms will generate power that has to travel a long way to get to the people using it. And decentralized solar or wind systems require a nimbler grid better able to receive smaller amounts of power from a host of disparate sources. A 21st-century grid should be able to handle that, but our current early-20th-century grid can’t.

The latest report from the trustees of the Social Security system has produced another round of supposedly serious-minded punditry on the supposedly urgent, desperate need to “strengthen” or “fix” Social Security. If these pundits had actually read the trustees’ report, they might have noticed that it says the program is guaranteed to continue in perfect health for another 27 years. It’s safe and sound through 2037. After that, it will still be able to pay 75 percent of all future benefits (75 percent of a 2037 benefit being, I believe, larger than 100 percent of a 2010 benefit).

Social Security isn’t facing a meltdown next year, or 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, or even 25 years from now. And what it’s facing, 27 years from now, is not a meltdown. It won’t gradually decline over that period, and the worst-case scenario come 2038 doesn’t involve it collapsing or going broke — if we do nothing to tweak it between now and then, it will simply pay out a bit less until the demographic bubble of the Baby Boom works itself through the system. (In 2038, there will be tens of millions of baby boomers aged 73 to 93 collecting benefits. By 2068, the youngest boomers still collecting benefits will be 103, and there likely won’t be tens of millions of them still around.)

And yet, for all of that, these self-appointed serious folk all insist that “fixing” Social Security is a far more urgent problem than creating a power grid for the 21st Century. That’s backwards. The power grid is in need of much more than tweaking and we do not have 27 years before we need to fix it. Every year we wait the system gets a bit more decrepit and more overtaxed. And every year we wait we’re spending tens of billions of dollars on nothing.

If we do nothing to address this then, come 2038, we’ll still be collecting Social Security, but we’ll be doing it in the dark.

So once again we find ourselves with an urgent task — with work that requires workers. And at the same time we have a ton of money and millions of workers that desperately need to be called in off the sidelines. Do we really need to wait until we have another massive blackout or until another million people are out of work before we act on the solution staring us in the face?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’ve punched in URLs and not had to deal with captchas. Typepad is more capricious than…a very capricious thing, indeed.

    IME, it has more to do with timing than anything else. Every time it’s kicked in for me, it’s been when posting to two threads in rapid succession

  • hagsrus

    Tommyknockers SPOILER:
    They somehow used living people (and a dog) as batteries.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    So who’s serious about “fixing” Social Security?

    Nobody, which is pretty much the entire problem right there.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    Even then there’s ways to defeat the captcha with sophisticated OCR-like analysis of graphics containing text.

    Or, more likely, and more depressingly, hiring workers in a 3rd world country to sit at cheap PCs and figure out CAPTCHAs all day.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    Tommyknockers SPOILER:
    They somehow used living people (and a dog) as batteries.

    Actually, I think what was being referred to was…
    The mysterious alien intelligences that possessed the inhabitants of Haven had advanced technology that was based entirely on DC current. These intelligences were also not well-versed in theory, though they were inveterate tinkerers, and so ignored the copious AC power available from every power outlet in their homes, and relied on batteries instead. Two of their number made a suicide* run to a nearby, uninfected town to stock up on car batteries, a sacrifice that was made all the more poignant by how monumentally unnecessary it was.
    *The possessed humans could not survive too far away from the source of their possession for various reasons that are important to the plot of the novel but irrelevant to this discussion.

  • Thanks! I do wonder, though, how they’re a space-faring race if they’re not well-versed in theory. ;)

  • Andrew Glasgow

    Thanks! I do wonder, though, how they’re a space-faring race if they’re not well-versed in theory. ;)

    I don’t recall exactly how King addressed that. I think it was either they sorta tinkered and jerry-rigged their way to a sub-relativistic drive and hibernation technology, or they stole technology from a race that was actually advanced in theory.

  • Andrew Glasgow

    Addendum: For that matter, Niven and Pournelle never answered that question in The Mote in God’s Eye or The Gripping Hand either.

  • Go for nature! I think there’s nothing wrong about it. at least they can do something for progression, lets just support it right? nice post though. keep it up!

  • As far as I read this link,I would say that this power grid will contribute good effect in the society since it could minimize pollution.So,let’s try this one to have a safe lifestyle in the next generation.

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