The Economist | Oct 18th 2014 | WASHINGTON, DC
AMERICA’S electricity grid is a mind-boggling mess. For one thing, it is two large and three small grids, rolled into one. Two types of organisation, independent system operators and regional transmission bodies, control their slices, which may cover several states. Each state has its own utility laws. Then there are eight regional reliability councils that work with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which is overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The two break down the grid into different, overlapping regions.
Nobody knows the true state of the national grid until something goes badly wrong, as it did in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy left almost 8m people powerless, some for weeks. The number of big outages, defined as those affecting more than 50,000 people, has more than doubled in the past ten years.
America’s power industry talks about creating a “smart grid”, a digitally connected network, automatically monitored and balanced, to solve the problems. This would involve individual utilities—the country has over 3,000—putting in modern control systems and installing “smart meters” to track consumption. This helps to manage demand, improves efficiency and enables renewables to connect to the grid. But it has little effect on the grid’s overall ability to handle weather-related onslaughts that hit wide areas or a big cyber-attack.