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Electrical Grid

Every time you flip a switch, charge up your phone, or turn on a television, you are taking energy from the electrical grid. While you enjoy the convenience of on-demand electricity in your home or business, you may not be aware of the complicated infrastructure it takes to make it all happen. If you have ever wondered where your electricity comes from and how it gets delivered to the places you need it most, then keep reading to discover what the electrical grid is, how it works, and the future of the energy grid in the United States.

What Is an Electrical Grid & How Does It Work?

In its most basic form, an electrical grid is like a roadmap to transport electricity from one point to another. At the starting point, the electricity is generated. From there, the power is transported across power lines and is transformed into usable forms of electricity. Finally, that electricity is harnessed from an outlet to power a variety of things for homes and businesses. When it is working correctly, the electrical grid supplies the electricity we all rely on to live, work, and play. However, many grids are susceptible to weather and other damage that can interrupt the flow and cut off power. Below we will go over each key component of a typical electrical grid in the U.S., how it works, and why it matters.

Individual Generators

The electric grid starts where the power is generated. These individual generators, also know as power plants, power stations, and generating plants, are where the electricity you use is created. There are a variety of methods used to generate energy, including: [1]

  • Coal
  • Natural Gas
  • Hydroelectric
  • Nuclear
  • Wind
  • Solar

Transmission Lines

Once the electricity has been generated, the process of transmission and distribution can begin. First, the electricity needs to be transformed or converted to a higher voltage using a transformer. Once the voltage is increased, it can travel along transmission lines to be used. The high voltage, which varies between 69 kV to 765 kV, helps limit the loss of electricity as it travels along these high voltage power lines. [2] However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), about 5% of the power still gets lost in the process. [3]

Distribution

The distribution part of the grid starts when the transmission lines end. Typically, electricity goes from a line into a transformer to “step down” the voltage and send it to your home. [4] Distribution also includes the other wires it takes to send the electricity from the transmission lines to the end consumer.

Load⁠—Consumer Use

Once the electricity reaches the end consumer at their home, the grid comes to an end. This is the path electricity takes to power our homes. Typically, each home will have a meter to measure the amount of electricity used. Energy providers then will charge you based on current rates. [5]

How Important Is an Effective Grid Transmission?

The electrical grid has a significant impact on the environment. The more efficiently energy can be generated and transmitted, the less effect it will have on the environment. These environmental effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), include: [6]

  • Greenhouse gasses and other pollutants from fossil fuel burning at power plants.
  • Water resources going towards cooling electric generators and other functions.
  • Discharge of hazardous waste and other materials into bodies of water.
  • Land use for the plants, lines, and other grid infrastructure.
  • Impact on plants and animals as a result of the impact on air, water, and land use.

The Smart Grid

Our current electric grid was conceived over 100 years ago. [7] At the time, electricity needs were simple, and the demand for electricity low. Today, the needs of the electric grid are being stretched to capacity. As a result, new power systems are being invented and implemented, including new smart grid technology.

What Is a “Smart” Grid

A traditional power grid only goes one way–from the power plant to the consumer. In a smart grid, technology, controllers, and other automated smart devices are used to communicate in either direction. This two-way-communication allows consumers and power generators to have more control of their energy consumption, where their energy comes from, and how it is being used. [8]

What Does a Smart Grid Do

While the benefits of a fully-integrated smart grid include carbon reduction, it is still not a reality for most. However, around 50 million smart meters have already been installed, allowing for real-time energy readouts. The U.S. Department of Energy is trying to have a complete and functioning smart grid in place by the year 2035. [9] According to SmartGrid.gov, benefits of a smart grid system include:

  • Increased efficiencies
  • Faster power restoration times following accidents
  • Reduced costs
  • Lower electricity rates
  • Greater integration for renewable energy sources
  • Improved safety and security

How You Can Support Renewable Energy Efforts

While improvements to America’s electric grid may still be years away, there are several things you can start today to help reduce your carbon footprint. When you support renewable energy efforts, you help displace the electricity generated by dirty fossil fuels like gas and coal. When you purchase carbon offsets from terrapass, we are able to support renewable energy projects like The Big Smile Wind Farm at Dempsey Ridge. This one wind farm will eventually deliver clean energy to 46,000 U.S. homes. You can start helping today when you calculate your own carbon footprint and purchase carbon offsets that will go towards helping The Big Smile Wind Farm and other similar efforts.

SOURCES:

  1. “Centralized Generation of Electricity and Its Impacts on the Environment.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 13 Mar. 2018, www.epa.gov/energy/centralized-generation-electricity-and-its-impacts-environment.
  2. Electric Power ETool: Illustrated Glossary – Transmission Lines, www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/electric_power/illustrated_glossary/transmission_lines.html.
  3. “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” How Much Electricity Is Lost in Electricity Transmission and Distribution in the United States? – FAQ – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=105&t=3.
  4. Tyco Electronics Corporation. “Potential Transformers.” http://www.cromptonusa.com/Potential%20Transformers.pdf
  5. Power, Team Arcadia. “Understanding the Electrical Grid: From Power Sources to Distribution Centers.” Blog, Arcadia Power, 23 Feb. 2018, blog.arcadiapower.com/understanding-the-electrical-grid/.
  6. “About the U.S. Electricity System and Its Impact on the Environment.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 13 June 2019, www.epa.gov/energy/about-us-electricity-system-and-its-impact-environment.
  7. “How Electricity Grew up? A Brief History of the Electrical Grid…” Buzz: The P2S Blog, 25 Oct. 2012, power2switch.com/blog/how-electricity-grew-up-a-brief-history-of-the-electrical-grid/.
  8. “Grid Modernization and the Smart Grid.” Energy.gov, www.energy.gov/oe/activities/technology-development/grid-modernization-and-smart-grid.
  9. Majcher, Kristin. “Question of The Week: Smart Grid.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 2 May 2015, www.technologyreview.com/s/537046/when-will-we-get-smart-grids/.


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