My senior year at Notre Dame I was able to take a class called Energy, Technology and Society which covered the foundations of energy and the role it plays in our world. Some of the more interesting energy-related topics we discussed included foreign policy, transportation and renewables. However, the biggest benefit of the class for me was understanding the basics of how energy is created, delivered and used by all of us.
Last week winter weather caused major power outages and other disastrous impacts across Texas. We had friends who lost power for almost 3 days straight and I can only imagine the challenges that many others faced (and some still face). For those of us not living in Texas, it was also a reminder of the electricity that we take for granted because we are almost always able to flip on a light switch and have power.
In the days following the winter weather across the South, people have been discussing the power grid and the need for improved energy infrastructure. When I think of infrastructure, my mind immediately goes to highways, airports, water towers, etc. but I don’t typically think of power plants and power lines. Yet, improvements to power generation and power distribution will be critical for our communities to continue to thrive, especially because climate change will put increasing stresses on our systems in place.
Some of you may already know the basics, but I wanted to share some essential background on the power grid. In short, the power grid takes the energy produced by power plants, transmits it long distances at high voltages, and then distributes it lower voltages at for local use. There are two major power grids shared by the US and Canada called “interconnections” as well as three smaller power grids. Power cannot “hang out” on the grid – the power generated is basically moving electrons and they must used or stored. Therefore, the power generated needs to match the power usage (except when there is storage able to be used). Renewable energy is necessary to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel power plants, but it poses challenges to the grid because you can’t choose when to generate solar or wind energy. This has increased the importance of developing and implementing more effective ways at storing large amounts of energy so that we can increase the percentage of renewable energy in our energy infrastructure.
I encourage you to find out more about the power grid so we can all be well informed as we seek improvements to our energy infrastructure. Here’s one helpful link to get you started: https://www.energy.gov/articles/infographic-understanding-grid