It's one of the hallmarks of modern life, but most people never give it a second thought — until it's not there.
When the lights go out, we get nervous. We worry about the food in the freezer and fridge. Worry about charging cellphones. Worry about keeping kids entertained and the house cool.
Extreme weather, especially ice, can play havoc with the delivery of electricity. The deadly tornadoes, high winds and heavy rain that tore through central Oklahoma in May caused tens of thousands to lose power. Ice storms in late 2007 led to more than 640,000 customers across the state without power, some for several weeks.
The National Academy of Engineering calls the electric grid the most important engineering feat of the 20th century. No one company or single government agency built it. It wasn't centrally planned like the interstate highway system.
Behind that flip of a switch is an entire network of people, equipment and electrons that keep our families comfortable, our lives convenient and the economy moving forward.
But the grid faces challenges in the 21st century, as electric utilities increasingly abandon cheap, plentiful coal in favor of natural gas and renewables like wind and solar. Getting that electricity from generation site to customer will require new transmission lines and lots of money. Other challenges range from the complex to the simple, from cyber terrorists targeting utility computer networks to an inquisitive squirrel jumping on the wrong piece of electrical equipment.
It wasn't always that complicated. The earliest electric lines connected city homes to the local power plant, then farms to the rural electric cooperative. Utilities sprung up and were regulated by the states. The federal government got increasingly involved after the Dust Bowl with hydroelectric projects and during the Great Depression with loans under the Rural Electrification Act. Huge blackouts in the Northeast in 1965 and 2003 led to more federal involvement in grid reliability.
Even today, there is no national grid that can transmit electricity from a nuclear plant in Georgia to a business in Colorado, or from a hydroelectric dam in Washington to a home in Chicago. It's a matter of physics and economics: Electricity needs high-voltage lines to efficiently transmit over long distances, and those lines are expensive to site and build.
At its highest level, the nation's grid is split into three separate interconnections: the Western Interconnection, the Eastern Interconnection and the Texas Interconnection, known by its acronym ERCOT, or Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Electricity can flow between those interconnections, but it's limited by a small number of direct-current transmission lines.
The grid is a patchwork of regional transmission organizations, government agencies and companies all working together — and occasionally in opposition to each other. But the goal is to keep electricity flowing reliably, affordably and with fewer harmful emissions.
“Coordination between the many institutions that govern or operate the U.S. grid will be necessary to ensure that power sector investments made over the next 10 years provide for affordable, reliable, and clean electricity in the decades ahead,” the Bipartisan Policy Center said in a report on grid modernization earlier this year.
Southwest Power Pool