(Photo by Tom Small; CC BY-SA 2.0) (Photo by Tom Small; CC BY-SA 2.0)

An Aging Power Grid

If Thomas Edison could examine America’s electricity grid today, he would see that not much has changed over the last 100 years. Since its invention in 1882, the grid has remained more or less the same. Power plants generate the electricity, and customers pay for it. It’s a simple idea, but one that has grown in complexity because of the sheer demand for power.

Today, more than 5,800 major power-generation facilities and 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines create an interconnected web of electricity that spans the United States. A distinguishing feature of energy production and distribution in the United States is the prevalence of privately held, investor-owned utilities. These for-profit utility companies often perform only minimal maintenance and repairs in an effort to keep investors satisfied. Unfortunately, this has led to an outdated, and often archaic infrastructure. These issues led former energy secretary Bill Richardson to declare that We’re a superpower with a third-world grid,” on CNN.

The Scope Of The Problem

In a recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, America received a D+ average for its energy infrastructure. This poor rating comes from a variety of sources, but most alarming is the fact that many components in the grid infrastructure have outlived their useful life expectancy. Nationally, 70% of high-voltage transmission lines are more than 25 years old, and 51% of power plants in the United States are more than 30 years old. The age of these components helps explain the prevalence of power-quality issues, such as the brownouts, sags and blackouts that have far-reaching consequences for a variety of industries, including the now-famous 34-minute Super Bowl blackout of 2013.

Projected Investment Spending For “The Grid”

Thankfully, since 2005 there has been an upward trend in investment spending for power transmission to meet demand. Still, the American Society of Civil Engineers extended current investment trends farther into the future, and found that the investment gap between needs and spending will total 107 billion dollars by the year 2020. Since privately held utility companies control most of the market, it’s difficult for a company trying to maximize profits to simultaneously invest heavily in infrastructure.

More frequent tropical storms have taken their toll on power plants located in coastal areas.

More frequent tropical storms have taken their toll on power plants located in coastal areas.
(Photo by Justin Ennis; CC BY-SA 2.0)

The “Current” Situation

It’s apparent that energy infrastructure in the United States is in need of a major overhaul. In fact, one out of every six dollars spent on electricity generation goes to emergency back-up equipment. Although spending has increased in the energy sector, the unfortunate truth is that “the grid” is actually becoming less reliable each passing year. In their impact survey, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that current climate trends, such as increased temperatures and greater prevalence for damaging tropical and severe winter storms, will make it more difficult for utilities to deliver reliable power in the future.

Innovative Solutions

Short of choosing to live off the grid, power-quality issues are an unfortunate reality in the United States. Although numerous options are being explored, including Smart-Grid technology and wind power, the reality is that over 80% of the electricity generated comes from coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants. And because more than half of these plants are more than 30 years old, power issues are likely to stay with us for quite some time.

Don’t let the “dirty grid” run your business. With UST’s advanced electronic voltage regulators, such as the Sure–Volt™, power-quality issues can be a thing of the past. Stop waiting for the smart grid; take the power back from the utility company.
With UST, you can Power Through It.