The term “grid” suggests a certain uniformity to the power system’s structure, but the network more closely resembles a patchwork quilt stitched together to cover a rapidly expanding nation.
The United States doesn’t yet face the critical shortage of power that has left more than 600 million people in India without electricity this week
But the U.S. grid is aging and stretched to capacity. More often the victim of decrepitude than the forces of nature, it is beginning to falter. Experts fear failures that caused blackouts in New York, Boston and San Diego may become more common as the voracious demand for power continues to grow. They say it will take a multibillion-dollar investment to avoid them.
“I like to think of our grid much like a water system, and basically all of our pipes are at full pressure now,” said Otto J. Lynch, vice president of Wisconsin-based Power Line Systems, “and if one of our pipes bursts and we have to shut off that line, that just increases the pressure on our remaining pipes until another one bursts, and next thing you know, we’re in a catastrophic run and we have to shut the whole water system down.”
India’s blackout was a power generation problem: It is saddled with aging coal power plants and facing resistance to new nuclear plants. This week, several plants closed suddenly and the lights went out. Although the United States will need more power plants to meet the demands of a growing population, the most immediate threat is that the delivery system will continue to fail.
The huge steel towers whose power cables crisscross the country — and the transmission stations they feed — are the pipes of that system. It’s not easy to store electricity for very long, and most of it is used within a second of being produced. At the push of a button, the grid routes power where it’s needed, from state to state or region to region. It is supposed to sidestep bottlenecks or hiccups that might slow the flow.
Towers are designed to withstand winds far stronger than the almost 70 mph blasts that struck Ritchie County, W.Va. But three towers in a row running parallel to Route 50 north of Ellenboro collapsed, early victims of a storm that would devastate power delivery throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
“A fourth tower didn’t come down but had to be removed because it was pulled off kilter,” said Todd Meyers, spokesman for FirstEnergy, a power company that supplies electricity to five states, including Maryland. “I don’t remember a time when this many came down. This is an unusual occurrence.”
Engineers are trying to figure out why the 40-year-old towers collapsed in a freak storm — whether through corrosion, foundation cracks or flying debris. But there have long been warnings that local systems, which began linking to one another in the 1920s, need an expensive overhaul.