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Power Grid a ‘Wicked Creature’

By Kenneth Chang

The New York Times -- The day-to-day operation of the nation’s power grid is a great marvel -- a second-by-second balancing act of the tremendously volatile thing known as electricity, a sometimes wicked creature seemingly with a mind of its own that can cause great damage in an instant.

The grid is not a programmable network like the phone system or the Internet. Electricity cannot be sent from here to there in nice packages.

Rather, the grid is like a giant invisible reservoir where the amount of power being put in at any moment must match the amount being consumed.

That the grid has suffered only a handful of major collapses in nearly half a century is, to many, a good record. And despite much criticism in the last 11 days that the grid is antiquated, the system’s transmission towers, power lines and transformers are not rusting hulks on the verge of collapse.

However, the damage that is done when a region of the United States goes dark -- in public confidence and economic losses as well as massive inconvenience -- has kept engineers working on technology to make the grid more reliable.

Experts are proposing billions of dollars of new equipment to relieve congestion at bottlenecked electrical junctions and to improve the system’s ability to limit the damage when something does go wrong.

The new technology includes electronic switches able to divert electricity flows protectively at moments of crisis. It also includes superconducting cables that carry greater quantities of electricity, to allow utilities to add transmission capacity without building unsightly towers.

Some of the ideas and inventions are in place to one degree or another in certain parts of the country. Others will soon be tested in pilot projects.

The new technology is needed in part to respond to the consequences of deregulation. Power producers now sell electricity to distant utilities, which puts far more strains on the grid.

With the investigation of the Aug. 14 blackout continuing, no one is yet sure of its precise cause or how much the proposed improvements would have helped, if at all. A 100 percent reliable grid is impossible, experts say.

Even when a better technology exists, economics and policy considerations have sometimes limited widespread use. Investment in the grid has dropped sharply in recent years.