Get to Know the US Electric Grid

Get to Know the US Electric Grid

What is the Electrical Grid?

Many people reference “the grid” without a firm grasp of how it works. We know being on the grid means we are connected to a power source. We also know the grid is strained when energy is in demand – when we’re all using heat or air conditioning because of extreme weather.


So what exactly is the electric grid? There are two key parts.

  1. Transmission Power Lines is what delivers energy from an electrical generating plant to a central hub closer to where energy is in demand. These powerlines transmit power for long distances. For example, New York City draws energy from infrastructure as many as 1200 miles away. Though, a typical transmission distance is 300 miles.
  2. Electric Power Distribution is more familiar to most – this connects high voltage substations to the users of power. Together, these two components comprise the grid.


This graphic demonstrates where transmission ends and distribution begins, as indicated by the blue and green lines.

Building a Resiliant Electric Grid

US Electric Grid

The US electric grid is more than a delivery system that goes from point A to point B – it’s a network of channels that depend on one another. In fact, a simple issue in Ohio, such as power lines damaged by overgrown trees, can lead to blackouts in other regions. That’s exactly what happened in the Northeast blackout of 2003. Software failed to trigger an alarm when damaged power lines in Ohio should have been detected. Meanwhile, northerners cranked their air conditioning units, putting further strain on the system. The result was a blackout that impacted 55 million people in the U.S. and Canada.

There are ways to ensure the national electric grid is more reliable, which means fewer, shorter power interruptions, and more resiliency (ready to recover from adverse events, like severe weather).

Here are a few ways the US electric grid is changing:

  • Infrastructure overhauls. In order to meet future energy demands in the U.S., the grid needs upgrades. The good news is we’re right on track. More than 10,000 automated capacitors, 7,000 automated feeder switches and 15.5 million smart meters have been introduced since the Department of Energy invested $4.5 billion for modernization efforts in 2010.
  • Synchrophaser technology. This technology delivers data 30 times in just one second, and there are now 900 in the U.S. Ultimately, this gives us oversight of the grid we’ve never had before, so we can detect issues and resolve them expeditiously.
  • Microgrids. Microgrids can shield a region from the impact of the larger grid when adverse events are involved. It can disconnect and operate on its own, tapping into backup generators, solar sources and stored energy.

The focus today is to update the national electric grid, improve monitoring and transform how localities attain and reserve power. Each of these steps can intercept failures on the grid, and abate the far-reaching effects a grid failure can have. As we continue to evolve the grid to suit our needs, creating new ways of monitoring and reserving our power will nurture a reliable, resilient source.

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