How India’s Blackouts Impact Our Views On The U.S. Grid

Posted on September 20th, 2012 by

Gregory Reed, Director of the Electric Power Initiative and Professor of electric power engineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and Associate Director of Pitt’s Center for Energy, discusses the impact that India’s blackouts are having on our perspective of our energy grid.Full Transcript:

Ben Lack With of the blackout situation happening that’s going on in India right now, what kind of concerns are getting more attention on the US side, the US infrastructure?
Gregory Reed Well, certainly whenever blackouts like this occur, wherever they occur, it does bring to the forefront something that we typically takes for granted, which is, state of our grid, the state of our electricity supply. We are fortunate here in the United States in terms of the high reliability. But certainly when we’ve had problems especially in recent decades they’ve been for different reasons than what has recently occurred in India. A lot of the attention right now is just from a heightened sense of awareness that electrical networks and electric power systems if not designed and operated are really very vulnerable and what we see is how dependent we have become as a modern society on electricity. I like to call it “The Lifeblood of Modern Society”.Everything that we do today whether its our financial actions on wall streets or operate businesses all the way down to all of our consumer electronic devices, the thing that we depend on to get along in modern society is based on a very high reliable supply of electricity. Just when we have blackouts it becomes somewhat of a crippling effect so, I think that’s the really the main thing. It’s that it’s height awareness for this incidence to occur and then we begin to always re-evaluate and make sure that the things that happen like what happened in India are not at risk here in the United States.
Ben Lack How big or small the role of reliability of the changing generation load impact the raw grid performance, I mean the country is definitely trying to incorporate renewables more into the generation portfolio and renewables for long term purposes is not as a reliable energy source as a coal or natural gas or other types of generation options. The country is also moving forward towards natural gas which provides some benefits, talk me a little bit about the change in the generation portfolio, how that impacts the overall infrastructure of the grid.
Gregory Reed That’s a great question because it’s really going to impact the infrastructure, the grid, both in the physical infrastructure as well as how we deal with things operationally and you mentioned a number of things there to address. So, first of all, from the renewable side for sure these are resources that are very good from clean energy perspective but come along with challenges of intermittency. We have to deal with those, by balancing, what I call more reliable, dispatchable, conventional means of generation. Some of it still based on fossil fuels but we can put nuclear into the mixer as well that really of a challenge from an operating point of view.

When you bring something like natural gas into the mix it’s actually very good because it really becomes an enabler of adding renewables into the grid. The more constant generation supply like natural gas, like nuclear can really help to better facilitate higher penetration levels of renewables. One of the other challenges that physically comes into play is where these resources are located specially renewables and we know that utility scale level were not talking about kilowatts or even a few megawatts but it’s in giga watts level. The majority of our higher penetration capabilities for renewables are in the plain states or perhaps off shore for solar it tends to be maybe more in the southwest or other pockets of the country. And those are areas, as I just mentioned, and as you think about it, are not densely populated.

Our main populations are more around the coastlines our big cities parts of the mid-west as well. So these resources are a lot further away than the generating stations that we built decades ago within a given utility foot print for that generation to serve that local demand. We’ve got to move it a longer distance than we ever have before and because of the market place today, generation anywhere theoretically, conserve load anywhere. So the superhighway of electrons, let’s call it our high voltage transmission systems were never really designed to strategize around a market place like what we are now beginning to operate with today. It really begs the question of looking at not just expanding infrastructure but to strategically looking at something we really never did for electricity network which is really the interstate system of electrons. We did that with the road ways and we have a tremendous transportation industry with trucking and bussing and everything else and automobile travels.

Our power networks were never really designed in that way they were really independent utility by utility networks that over time got tight together with AC lines DC in some cases we need to look at today, really a super highway of electricity that can really be predicated on high voltage DC as a very effective way of moving electricity over long distances. In that type of technology itself we’ll also better facilitate some of intermittency issues of renewables and can be able to balance out the generation portfolios in a much better way than we were able to do today.

Ben Lack I want to wrap up our discussion by asking you a personal question which is why are you doing what you’re doing and why does this industry interest you?
Gregory Reed I’ve always been enamoured by the power industry. Even as a young student and part of it is, I think, recognizing the importance of again of electricity to society, the challenges that the industry brings that are [multi-tasked,] there are technical challenges which are exciting but there are also many other aspects of it from a professional point of view, in terms of regulatory issues and just the industry itself and the importance it has, has always been very attractive and very exciting. I think it’s a great opportunity if I could say this plug for young engineers today or young people today looking for career choices or looking for what their future can bring  and what they can really make contributions. And the energy sectors and the power industry, we need great young minds to come in and help us be innovative and help us to develop the technologies and the future that are going to provide the continued high reliability of our electrical grid and our energy supply.

Part of why I do what I do is that excitement and especially as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh being able to be around this next generation of engineers and our young people who are just really so excited about what their futures can be and this is really motivating actually.


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