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Keeping The Lights On

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

ScienceMade Influence Blog

By Margherita Firenze, Electrical Engineering student at Columbia University ('23)

Flip a switch, and the lights turn on. Plug in a computer, hair dryer, or TV and the magic begins. Though the wonders of electricity surround us, we often take our convenient access for granted. Where does electricity come from? And how are century-old power systems changing?

Like many phenomena in science, generating electricity involves energy transformations. In traditional power plants, the chemical energy stored in coal and other fossil fuels is converted to electrical energy with the help of a ​turbine​. In the process of burning coal, power plants emit compounds like CO​2​ and SO2​ which contribute to global warming and reduce air quality. However, once energy takes the form of electrical energy the real challenge begins! How do we transport energy from power plants to homes? To solve this problem, engineers have built what some consider to be the largest machine in the world - the electrical grid.

The electrical grid connects every house, building, and factory to power stations like the coal plant we mentioned before. For example, the tall power lines we see on the highway or even the shorter ones near neighborhoods all make up the grid. In urban areas, the lines are buried underground. When we turn on a light switch, we use energy generated hundreds of miles away!

Electrical energy is expensive to store in storage systems like batteries. This means that the energy we use to power our lights must be quickly replenished by the power plant. In other words, the supply of energy must always equal the demand of energy. This creates a balancing act for utility companies: if they produce too much energy, they’ll waste money, but if they don’t produce enough energy, blackouts will occur. To optimize energy utility, companies must use a thought-out strategy.

One strategy is to look at historical trends. Energy demand varies between seasons but follows roughly the same patterns daily: in the summer months there is a surge of demand around 6 PM as people return home from work and eat dinner. Another strategy involves using dispatchable energy sources​, or energy sources that can be turned-on quickly, when an unexpected increase in demand occurs. 

However, while these two approaches work most of the time, sometimes, neither is enough to prevent a blackout. For example, if everyone turns on the air conditioning on an unexpected hot day, operators may not have the capacity to ramp up energy production, and power can go out in some areas. To prevent these scenarios, utility companies will simply  build more power plants. Though these extra plants make our grid more reliable, they usually only get used a few times a year (what a waste!).

At this point, our grid may seem troublesome: the century-old system is rather wasteful, prone to pollute, and hard to manage. Luckily, engineers and scientists have been working hard in the past few decades to upgrade our current grid to what they call the ​Smart Grid. We could compare this upgrade to the switch from landlines to smartphones. While a landline phone does the job of calling, an iPhone does so much more by implementing smart algorithms and connecting to the internet.

Similarly, the Smart Grid will improve our power system by helping us conserve energy and integrate renewable sources like solar energy. Using tools like smart sensors and machine learning algorithms, we will be able to better predict energy demand to prevent blackouts and energy waste. Smart Grids help us imagine an exciting and sustainable energy future: one where blackouts don’t occur, fossil-fuels emissions are greatly reduced, and renewable energy is king.


Image is in the public domain.

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