Too good to fail: What’s wrong with the electric grid?

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Elisa WoodBy Elisa Wood
July 5, 2012

The temperature is 100 degrees and we have no air conditioning, no running water, no telephone and no Internet. It’s been 60 hours since our household lost electricity because of the super derecho, a rare surprise storm that swept ten US states and the nation’s capital on June 29.

About 5 million of us suddenly are living in conditions of a century earlier. And as we fumble in the dark, it’s easy to see how vulnerable our profound reliance on electricity makes us.

The notion of grid reliability is embedded deeply in the American psyche. We are so accustomed to electricity flowing, we can barely comprehend its absence. By habit, we still flip on the light switch when entering a room, even after the power has been out for hours.

We have good reason to trust. After all, behind the switch is the world’s largest machine, the North American power grid. With 211,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5,800 power plants feeding electricity to our homes and businesses, the grid is an engineering wonder.

A wonder – until a storm, or a heat wave, or even a squirrel chewing the right wire in the right place knocks out power to large swaths of customers.

It is the grid’s size and interconnectivity that makes it remarkable and efficient, but also susceptible to widespread mishap. We saw that most clearly in the Northeast Blackout of 2003, when a cascading event caused failures that tumbled quickly from neighborhood to neighborhood, state to state, finally leaving 50 million without power.

But the American consumer generally does not view a blackout as a sign of an inherent problem with our electric grid. Following the June 9 derecho, about 30,000 workers, some borrowed from utilities as far away as Texas and Oklahoma, went to work restoring power in the Mid-Atlantic and nearby states. Still, consumers will be angry at the length of time it takes. And if the acrimony is as great as it was in New England last year following the freak Halloween nor’easter, politicians will take up the cause, regulators will investigate and some utility executives may find their jobs threatened.

If our lights fail and aren’t fixed quickly, we believe someone must be to blame. The problem can’t possibly be the nature of the interconnected grid itself. In the consumer’s mind, electricity is like air; it’s just there for us. If it’s not, someone messed up.

The energy industry refers to this as electricity’s invisibility. In many ways it speaks to the product’s success. Who in America ponders whether or not to buy electricity? It’s a given that we will connect our homes to the grid, pay the monthly bill and the power will flow.

But, this invisibility, this success, is a failing too.

Power companies throughout much of the nation are striving to make the grid less vulnerable by smartening it, and some of this smartening relies on consumer interaction, taking control over our electricity consumption through new digital technologies.  It includes installing smart meters and energy displays, building  microgrids and developing more solar energy and other forms of distributed generation, which decentralize the grid, and therefore takeaway at least some of the exposure that comes with size. (Think the Death Star in the movie Star Wars.).

Suddenly we need to pay attention to electricity, and we’d rather let it stay invisible.

So to make smart grid work, the energy industry needs to figure out what makes the consumer work. A great deal of study is now underway on human behavior and energy. The goal is to encourage us to embrace smart energy technologies, so that we will use electricity more efficiently. It’s been tough going. Most consumers see no underlying problem with the electric grid. If it’s not broke, why fix it?

I can’t say I like being without air conditioning and water. But maybe the occasional loss of comfort is a good thing, an eye opener, a reminder that we need to contemplate our electric system’s inherent weakness and work to strengthen it. The grid can break. It is not too good to fail.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work is available at


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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Elisa,

    The “invisibility” of electricity that you speak of is actually an impediment to truly meaningful efficiency improvements – especially for our buildings. The efficiency community has failed to show the powerful connections (no pun intended) to our growing demand for electricity, peak power for air conditioning, the increasing challenge of a stable and reliable grid and our most basic building energy efficiency objectives.

    The electric industry is amazing – especially in times of emergency and disaster. As you noted, workers from all over the country were marshalled and began repairing and restoring power across the eastern seaboard. The same happens following ice storms and hurricanes and whatever Mother Nature has in store. The “emergency preparedness” and collaborative response of the electric industry is truly remarkable.

    But these disasters suddenly make electricity visible. Very visible. Hospital and nursing home emergency generators turn on. People lose their freezers full of food and supplies. At risk groups such as the elderly and sick are put at even more risk.

    Yet we still fail to value basic energy efficiency for our buildings.

    Improved building efficiency is directly compatible with our electricity reliability objectives. Homes that are well insulated and air sealed stay cooler longer when the power goes out in the summer. Buildings with better windows have lower air conditioning demands, helping to keep that unwanted heat out during those hot summer days.

    And when the power comes back on, more energy efficient buildings recover quicker, having better sealed and insulated duct work and more efficient HVAC systems.

    Right now, during these times of electricity “challenges” – when our demand for electricilty is most visible – we should renew our commitments to improved building energy efficiency, better energy codes, tax and lending policies that promote energy efficiency improvements at home and at work, bigger and better utility programs that help us improve all our buildings.

    As we strive to deal with this summer’s heat and the demands for a reliable electric grid, let’s remember that the efficiency community is the electric industry’s best friend – not only in times of challenge, but every day. Let’s make efficiency and electricity – and their shared objectives – even MORE visible.

    Chris Mathis
    Mathis Consulting Company

  2. Thanks Chris. Excellent points. You expressed what I was trying to say, and did so better. Invisibility is a problem that gets in the way of energy efficiency.

  3. Ben Boyd says:

    Elisa it really is a rotten shame you have been out of electricity for 60 hours. However, or any other caused by weather be an indictment against the wonder the US electric grid truely is. Of course we hate outages of any sort. But we don’t control the weather and never will. On the bright side, having survived Katrina and Rita a few years ago, I sleep very well at night knowing the power will come back on as soon as physically possible. Many places in the world do not afford that luxury to its citizens. As Chris put it so well on the efficiency side of the equation, energy efficiency is the main goal of a smarter grid. I would say interoperability and better reliability are intended outcomes, however better efficiency without energy independence/energy security is only a house of cards. How efficient can you be when you have nothing to reduce?

  4. Chris, the article reflects our vulnerability and reliance on a sole power grid.

  5. I lost my cell phone over the weekend and I have been completely out of my element until the replacement arrived today. It really concerned me how dependent I was on my phone and I gave much thought to how I was going to approach it differently. Similarly with electricity, we do need to break our dependence on it. We can achieve this through energy efficient upgrades. I agree with Mr Mathis but I also think that with energy efficiency, the technology is not quite there for the investment to make good fiscal sense for the owner. As far as residential applications are concerned, without government subsidizing, many people do not live in their homes long enough to break even on solar panels, high efficient air conditioners, solar hot water heaters, reflective windows etc. Insulation is one area that doesn’t require too much technical skill and the costs make the choice easy.

  6. Ed Wilson says:

    Chris and all;

    In most of Canada it isn’t summer heat (take off your cloths get out there and enjoy it! It might last 10 days!) it is the cold that we watch, and it is longer and harder.

    I want to note that there are three grids in North America, East of the Mississippi, West of the Mississippi, and Texas, but the result is the same as if there was on.

    There was a lovely artical about the recovery from Rita, where the power utility 1) made a deal with the refinery to supply them power first – so they could get the diesel fuel they needed to power their trucks, 2) allowed the ‘outside crews’ to wire to the ‘crew standards’ (and blocked the repairs and filed the drawings as needed). The later is a big concession (but the hole in the grid was even bigger!).


    Ed Wilson
    Calgary Alberta.


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