US & World

Generating Changes In The Electrical Power Grid

A man walks past solar modules of a newly installed photovoltaic complex near the village Denkendorf, southern Germany, on July 1, 2010.
A man walks past solar modules of a newly installed photovoltaic complex near the village Denkendorf, southern Germany, on July 1, 2010.
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Journalist Joel Achenbach describes how our nation's electricity grid is based on 1960s technology that wastes power and discourages the use of renewable energy.

The electricity grid in the U.S. wastes power and discourages the use of renewable sources of energy like solar and wind. The grid still relies on technology from the 1960s, says journalist Joel Achenbach, who wrote about the nation's electrical infrastructure in an article in July’s National Geographic magazine.

In an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Achenbach tells contributor Dave Davies that most people don't think about the way electricity from a power plant hundreds of miles away may be used to turn on a light bulb in their home.

"We've just become so accustomed to [the electric power grid] -- it's like oxygen," he says. "But we can't take it for granted. Things go wrong, and suddenly 50 million people are without power, and then they notice the grid and they learn about the system behind the magic."

Achenbach's article examines how the aging power grid must change to keep up with 21st-century demands. Blackouts and brownouts, he writes, cost Americans an estimated $80 billion a year -- and unless upgrades are made, the grid will continue to be "prone to failure."

Creating a smarter energy grid -- one that allows information to go back and forth between consumer and energy producer -- would provide information like who is using power when, and both consumers and energy providers would then be able to adjust accordingly, Achenbach explains.

"The goal -- what people would like to do is create a smart grid that's not just electricity going down a line, a wire that has no information coming back," he says. "If you think about it, those power lines that go to your house -- they're not like broadband cable. There's no data going on that, and the power company typically does not know how much electricity I'm using unless they send a meter reader to come and look at a meter on the side of my house. So when are we going to bring this into the 21st century?"

But the process of changing the entire electrical system will be a slow one.

"For traditional reasons, it remains kind of a local/state-regulated system," Achenbach says. "It's a little bit here, a little bit there. It gradually evolved. If you had to build it over again, you wouldn't build it this way necessarily. It's been 130 years in the making, and it's not going to suddenly be erased overnight."

Joel Achenbach is a writer and blogger for the Washington Post. He is the author of six books, including The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West and Why Things Are & Why Things Aren't.

Interview Highlights

On who controls the power lines

"The states individually control the transmission lines, which is something that power companies were bending my ear about. They would like it if the federal government could step in. You know, they're fairly conservative business people who run these utility companies, but they would like it if the federal government exerted more authority and took some of the power away from the states to decide whether or not you could have a transmission line across various states, because they look at the country differently than we look at it. They don't see the state lines. They see the load centers are over here in the East, the power-generating stations burning massive amounts of coal are along the Ohio River Valley or in West Virginia or so on.

"They want to get that electricity from West to East, and it can be irritating to go through the permitting process of every county and every state government. One company was telling me they spent 18 years building a new power line [but] only 18 months of actual construction. They spent 16-and-a-half years getting the permission to do it. So the governance of it is scattered a little bit."

On storing electricity

"One of the dreams is to find a way to park electricity. One of the difficulties is finding a way to store electricity. One of the things you can do is, you can pump water up a hill at night when there's low demand for electricity, and that effectively works as a battery, because the next day when there's a lot of demand for electricity, the water flows back down the hill and turns the turbine. But in general, they don't have batteries for electricity -- like anything that you'd want to be able to store it in great quantity."

How a smart grid would change the supply of electricity

"You'd be able to use electricity when electricity's cheaper -- off-peak hours. You'd be able to generate your own electricity from your car battery if you had an electric car -- or your rooftop solar panel or your windmill in your backyard -- and you'd be able to essentially be a producer as well as consumer of electricity. And you'd have more information at your fingertips about how much electricity you're using -- how efficient am I being?" Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit