The term “grid” suggests a certain uniformity to the power system’s structure, but the network more closely resembles a patchwork quilt stitched together to cover a rapidly expanding nation.
More often the victim of decrepitude than the forces of nature, it is beginning to falter. Experts fear failures that caused blackouts in New York, Boston and San Diego may become more common as the voracious demand for power continues to grow. They say it will take a multibillion-dollar investment to avoid them.
India’s blackout was a power generation problem: It is saddled with aging coal power plants and facing resistance to new nuclear plants. This week, several plants closed suddenly and the lights went out. Although the United States will need more power plants to meet the demands of a growing population, the most immediate threat is that the delivery system will continue to fail.
The huge steel towers whose power cables crisscross the country — and the transmission stations they feed — are the pipes of that system. It’s not easy to store electricity for very long, and most of it is used within a second of being produced. At the push of a button, the grid routes power where it’s needed, from state to state or region to region. It is supposed to sidestep bottlenecks or hiccups that might slow the flow.
Towers are designed to withstand winds far stronger than the almost 70 mph blasts that struck Ritchie County, W.Va. But three towers in a row running parallel to Route 50 north of Ellenboro collapsed, early victims of a storm that would devastate power delivery throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
Engineers are trying to figure out why the 40-year-old towers collapsed in a freak storm — whether through corrosion, foundation cracks or flying debris. But there have long been warnings that local systems, which began linking to one another in the 1920s, need an expensive overhaul.