There's also a technology I'm personally involved with called synchrophasors. It's better at measuring the grid to really understand what is happening. It takes advantage of a common time reference. Equipped with GPS, this technology gives you microsecond accuracy of time across the whole power system. … The measurement it allows gives a direct indicator of the stress on the grid. The analogy I use is it's like going from x-rays to MRIs. In the old days utilities gathered data every four seconds. Some were as fast as every two seconds. That's adequate if you're just feeding information to a human operator but it's not time synchronized. With the new [synchrophasors] installed in substations, these things use higher sampling rates. They run about 30 samples per second. Some are even faster than that.
But there were no big changes to the grid itself?
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided some grant money for smart-grid technologies. But in terms of the grid itself, not so much. There were no fundamental changes in the way the grid is operated. You still have power lines and transformers and, mostly, central generation [power plants]. At the transmission level, it's pretty similar technology to what we had 10 years ago.
Has the grid become just too big to handle or is the answer to make an even bigger grid?
The bigger the grid is, the more reliable it is. Think about how the 2003 blackout progressed. The eastern grid has a peak of 800,000 megawatts but it was only 60,000 megawatts that got knocked out. It was only a small chunk of the grid. The answer is to compartmentalize part of the grid.
So would we have a unified grid someday across all of North America to make the system even more secure? The question on that is the economics of building out the infrastructure. Say we do build out wind power in the Dakotas and Wyoming, right along the seam of the eastern and western grid, and build transmission to get that wind [-generated electricity] to cities? Maybe someday it would make sense to connect east and west but there is no compelling reason right now to build a bunch of power lines because the cost-benefit just isn't there.
But distributed generation, like solar panels on peoples' rooftops, seems to present a fundamental challenge to this centralized-grid concept?
The infrastructure itself is a very complex machine. And we're integrating a lot of variable generation, wind and solar and things like that. We're seeing a lot more natural gas because of its price and the retirement of coal-fired power plants. There are also new types of loads we haven't seen before [like electric cars charging at night.] There are a lot of changes we're going to see going forward and we've already been seeing. That change creates risk.
Are we on the threshold of some sort of real major disruption if the price of photovoltaics drops to the point where nobody wants to buy power from utility companies and just self-generate? What is the grid going to look like then?
Personally, I believe we want a big grid with the ability to pool resources. I don't believe we're going to abandon that, but that model is going to face some business challenges. Utilities that operate the system are going to be facing some fundamental challenges to continue to do so. It's going to take a lot of effort by everyone from regulators to customers to suppliers to work that out.