America’s energy grid is described as the world’s largest machine. More than 11,000 power plants send electricity through 600,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 6 million miles of local distribution lines to customers in almost every corner of the country.
The grid also may be the world’s most impressive balancing act since electricity supply and demand need to match each other in real time, all the time, to maintain the voltages and current flows that power society. Such a task seems almost impossible, but it’s getting even harder due to significant industrial, societal and climatic changes.
“New sources of power generation such as solar and wind are coming on line, as well as new types of loads such as electric vehicles,” says Anamitra Pal, an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “At the same time, we see the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires. The combination of these elements represents a major challenge to the reliable and resilient operation of the electric power grid during the coming decade and beyond.”