Last week Texas had major power outages across most of the state. The crisis occurred due to unusually cold weather coupled with the failure of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) failing to prepare the Texas electric infrastructure for extreme weather (read Winter Storm 2021 to learn more about the outages). While most of the US electrical grid is able to share power, Texas runs it's own system so they couldn't get help from neighboring states.
This article provides an overview of the electric grid infrastructure that delivers electricity to your home. It will help you understand where the failures in Texas occurred. You'll also learn about the challenges facing the US electrical grid which needs to be upgraded.
How Electricity is Generated
In the 1880s, electricity started to replace gas lamps with better lighting. Electricity doesn't exist in nature so it has to be generated. This happens at power plants and from there, it gets distributed through a complex system known as the electric grid, The big change in power generation is the type of fuel used:
- Fossil fuels like coal and gas remain dominant. But our dependence on these fuels is dropping from 72% in 2007 to 65.7% in 2017.
- Renewable sources (solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass) have jumped from 7.5% in 2007 to 14% … and surprisingly, solar is only 0.9%.
Want to learn which fuels are used to generate electricity in your state? Visit USAFacts.org and scroll down to the second chart that looks like the US graph below. On the right, you'll see a smaller state map. When you click on your state, the large graph will change to show your state's fuel usage.
Electric utility companies come in many shapes and sizes according to the US Energy Information Administration. At one time there were more than 4,000 individual electrical utilities operating in isolation. They are now interconnected across the US via two large networks to improve reliability. Only Texas stands alone to avoid federal regulations … which is why the recent power outages were so catastrophic.
- Some utility companies generate all the electricity they sell using their own power plants. Other utilities purchase electricity from other utilities and/or other companies.
- Some companies are not-for-profit municipal electric utilities, cooperatives owned by their members or for-profit utilities owned by shareholders.
- There are also federally owned power authorities like the Tennessee Valley Authority that generates and sells power.
How Electricity Gets to Your House
Electricity goes through three steps before it powers your house lights, appliances and yes, all the electronics we're collecting.
- Generation happens at power plants which tend to be located near the fuel source.
- Transmission starts/ends with electrical substations that increase (then decrease) the voltage which moves across the lines more efficiently at higher voltages.
- Distribution lines take the electric power from the substation and deliver it to individual houses.
Changes & Challenges for Our Electric Grid
Components of the US electrical grid are reaching their end of life so changes are needed. Technology is helping with new devices to manage the grid plus improvements in our homes:
- Smart grid technology makes the electrical system more reliable and efficient, helping utilities reduce losses and detect/fix problems more quickly.
- Smart devices in our homes (offices and factories) give homeowners more information about when they're using electricity so they can lower their bills.
There are major challenges facing the energy industry if we're to continue getting reliable electricity when we need it.
- With today's network serving multiple communities/states, it's difficult to determine who should pay for investments in new infrastructure.
- More transmission lines are needed to reach renewable power generation sites that are far away from where electricity is needed.
- New lines require land and getting approval for the power line routes is challenging.
- The grid also needs protection from both physical and cyber attacks.
We take for granted that our homes will always be comfortable. We can learn from the Texas disaster that government regulations are necessary to insure reliable power and safe drinking water.
Resources to Learn More About the Electric Grid
- Texas power crisis could cripple small marketers, unravel market deregulation – describes how power costs went crazy and will cause some companies to fail.