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By Dr. E. KIRSTEN PETERS
Contributor 

Getting behind the humming science of electrical power

 


Think about the most complicated machine you’ve dealt with in the past year. Was it a beeping monitor tethered to a high-tech device in an emergency room? Or was it a super fast computer you used at work?

Actually, the most complicated machine you’ve interacted with was the one you used this morning when you switched on a light or plugged in your coffee machine. The entire power grid has to balance supply (generation) and demand (load) on a second by second basis. We take it for granted most of the time, but it’s a marvel when you stop to think about it.

“The U.S. grid is the most complicated machine on the planet,” Bob Morris said.

Morris is an engineer who works at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL). SEL sells electronic relays and other devices that help the grid function more safely and reliably.

A map of the backbone of the grid in the U.S. looks like a national highway map with oodles of lines running across states. Those big power lines feed into smaller and smaller ones, all the way down to your house.

You can see some of the grid’s complexity right in your neighborhood. Transformers at your local substation or hanging from power poles speak to some of what’s going on in the grid. And relays like the kind SEL manufactures control circuit breakers in the power lines.

There’s a lot of redundancy in the grid. That means there are back-up routes through which power can flow if part of the grid is lost. Even if a power plant suddenly goes off-line for some reason, the grid is designed to compensate for that and get power from other sources to where it’s needed.

“Our grid is amazingly robust,” Morris said. “We have the most reliable power in the world.”

Just like cellphones, the grid has been getting “smarter” in recent years. Companies like SEL sell relays and other electronic devices that have added new capabilities to the grid. In the old days, when a line went down or shorted out, workers had to go out to look for where the problem was. But increasingly, because of devices like SEL’s products, relays connected to the wires tell the utility company how far from a substation the fault is. This means that responses and repairs can be made much more quickly.

As the grid gets smarter, it’s getting more reliable, even as it continues to grow. That’s the good news — a fact I hope you’ll remember the next time you turn on a light.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

 

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