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How does power get to the people who use it? In this episode we talk about one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the 20th century -- something we use every day, but often take for granted: the electric grid.
We talk to an expert about how power travels to our electric sockets, and hear about how one city -- hit with major power outages during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 -- is preparing for the next storm with something called a microgrid.
You can find lots more information, graphics and videos on our blog for this episode.
Direct Current Episode 3
(Power to the People)
[Ambient sounds of the National Mall]
DAN WOOD: Hey you wanna be in a podcast?
KHALIL: A podcast—of course I’d like to be in a podcast!
WOOD: How you doin’? I’m Dan.
KHALIL: Okay, Dan, I’m Khalil
WOOD: We have a podcast about energy. And this is about the grid, which is the—how power gets from one place to another. Can I ask you a few questions about that?
WOOD: Alright, cool.
WOOD (Voiceover): Hey everybody, this is Dan Wood, and I’m out here on the National Mall in Washington, DC. We’re here to talk to people about something that’s all around them, but they don’t think about it very much. [We’re] Talking about the electrical grid. Let’s see how much people really know about where we get our electricity: electricity that lights our homes, charges our phones, and brings us this podcast.
JOHN: My name’s John.
OMAR: My name is Omar.
CHABNAM: My name’s Chabnam
LAURA: My name is Laura.
WOOD: Where do you think the power starts?
OMAR: From a lot of things, right? Maybe—I don’t know—one of them’s friction?
WOOD: Have you ever heard of the term, “the power grid”?
MARTHA: I think I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what it is.
WOOD: If you had to like imagine what a power grid would be, what would you…?
MARTHA: Well I imagine a bunch of—what is it called—solar panels, but that’s—that’s not it.
WOOD: Do you know where your power comes from?
LAURA: Are you talking about electric power…?
LAURA: Like my electricity from my home?
LAURA: No. I don’t.
ZANDER: Uhmm… I do not. I have—like—I have an image of it, in my head, but I don’t know.
WOOD: Tell us about that.
ZANDER: Well I can use the word grid—it’s like one big grid, and I just see a bunch of like—electrical… [Laughs.] Like—stuff.
CHABNAM: Well it comes from Homer City—the power plant, which is mostly coal.
WOOD: So where does the power start?
KHALIL: Well I believe power starts at the power sources, which are the power plants.
KHALIL: The energy is generated through cables and wires, which eventually makes its way and travel to our homes.
WOOD: Okay, very good.
WOOD: Have you ever heard of a transformer?
MARTHA: From the movie?
WOOD: No. From science.
MARTHA: [Laughs.] Uhm, no.
WOOD: How old would you guess the oldest part of the grid is?
JOHN: Wow, I know—I have actually looked at electric generation stations that are back into the early 1900’s. Pretty old.
CHABNAM: Sixty years.
KHALIL: How old is the oldest part of the power grid—ooh. Couple a hundred years?
WOOD: The very first one was in Lower Manhattan in 1882. Thomas Edison opened the very first electrical grid.
LAURA: Mmmm. I knew it should’ve went back a little bit more.
WOOD: What do you think is the number one cause of power outages in the United States? A: a squirrel, just one squirrel, like this one squirrel named Jerry. B: transformer failure. C: severe weather. Or D: overloaded grid.
KHALIL: I would say overloaded grid.
ZANDER: Technology failure, performance failure, you know—old infrastructure.
JOHN: Wow, I would say probably weather, but I could well be wrong.
WOOD: Ding-ding-ding, that is correct.
WOOD (Voiceover): So clearly some people have a pretty good understanding of how the electrical grid works. But there’s a lot of us that don’t. And that’s what this episode of Direct Current is all about—understanding the grid. We’ve got a lot to learn, so stick around.
[Direct Current theme music plays]
MATT DOZIER: Hello and welcome to another episode of Direct Current. I’m Matt Dozier.
ALLISON LANTERO: And I’m Allison Lantero. Today we’re talking about an invention that the National Academy of Engineering called one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, and yet we constantly take it for granted: the electric grid.
DOZIER: Yeah, I definitely didn’t know how the electric grid worked until I started here at the Department of Energy.
LANTERO: Me either. We tend to not think about the grid until something goes wrong. Like it did in the city of Hoboken, New Jersey in October 2014.
[Sounds of thunderstorm]
NEWS CLIP: Clear and present danger, Sandy swirls along the East Coast.
NEWS CLIP 2: 433,000 homes and businesses are still without power.
NEWS CLIP 3: The National Guard arrived late last night to help evacuate residents in Hoboken, New Jersey.
LANTERO: Most of us only heard the news stories about Superstorm Sandy, but Allison Outwater, a student at Stevens Institute of Technology, lived it.
ALLISON OUTWATER: My house—we lost power. We lost part of our roof. But, I mean, that was nothing. The city was a mess. Most of the city was underwater. Only a couple of blocks didn’t lose power, but everyone else in the city didn’t have power.
LANTERO: Hoboken is home to over fifty-thousand people. The city sits across from New York City, right on the Hudson River.
OUTWATER: Right after Sandy hit, of course, we also got hit by a snowstorm, so it was extremely cold out. That snowstorm was very difficult for the people who didn’t have power because then it was also extremely cold, so—all across the city there were downed trees everywhere, the water was extremely dangerous. It was a couple feet high in many areas, and a lot of residents were trapped where they were.
LANTERO: Allison, who comes from a family of first responders, decided to go to City Hall and volunteer to help those who’d been flooded out and lost power. In the pitch black, she went on a rescue mission to rescue an elderly woman without power and her phone even became an emergency hotline for the city.
OUTWATER: I still get phone calls from people on my cellphone, the older people who don’t realize that, like, I’m not Hoboken, they still call me.
LANTERO: Within her first day of volunteering, Allison became the volunteer coordinator for the entire City of Hoboken. People even mistook her for the mayor. Meanwhile, the real mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, was assessing the damage, distributing donations and comforting the city’s residents.
DAWN ZIMMER: You know, I went around and tried to hand out food during Sandy -- and there was a senior that literally cried on my shoulder and just said like, “I can’t even, I can’t leave here. There -- there’s not any lights on in the hallway, there’s not an exit sign. I can’t get out.”
It was difficult to even have the power for our police stations. We couldn’t get fuel into the city to power the generator. The water came in—the Hudson River came in on us. And literally filled up the western side of the city like a bathtub.
LANTERO: It flooded nearly 80% of the city -- including Hoboken’s electric substations, which distribute electricity throughout the city. Most residents were without power for two entire weeks.
Think about that for a second, two weeks without microwaves and refrigerators, without the internet, without lights after the sun goes down.
OUTWATER: I was lucky and-- at my--in my dorm I had electricity. But I wasn’t there, I was in City Hall, which did not have power. We had one generator to operate all of the systems that we needed. And it was really difficult. There were a lot of times--I never realized how much I appreciate my computer and a printer. I never realized how much being able to turn a light on is just great.
The few people that did have power were running power strips out of their homes so people who didn’t have power or couldn’t get into their apartments could plug in their phones and contact their loved ones.
LANTERO: And while citizens were sharing cellphone charges, Mayor Zimmer was thinking about how to improve the entire city’s electric resiliency in the face of future storms.
ZIMMER: What we found is we need a grocery store to have power so that that becomes the place, like, where people can get food. We need for the pharmacy to have power because getting medication to our seniors was extremely important. I mean, seniors were frantic about not having their medication. So there are certain things that we realized through the storm that are really potentially important. And that all kind of coalesced on the idea of a microgrid.
LANTERO: That’s right, a microgrid.
MATT DOZIER: Uh, hold on a second, can I interrupt here?
LANTERO: Yeah, what’s up?
DOZIER: Well before we talk about microgrids, I was thinking we should talk a little about how the grid works, like the big one.
LANTERO: Good point. Where should we start?
DOZIER: Let’s talk to somebody who really knows this stuff.
DOZIER: Can we start at the beginning here? Can you tell me where our electricity comes from?
LIZ DALTON: So for most people it starts with power plants, which convert energy sources like coal and nuclear and renewable energy like solar and wind into electricity. Electricity, you can think about it—it’s the means by which we move energy from a supplier, the power plants, to your homes and businesses.
DOZIER: Tell us what your title is.
DALTON: Hi, I’m Liz Dalton. And I am the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability. Say that ten times fast.
DOZIER: It’s a pretty long title.
DALTON: Ridiculously long title.
DOZIER: So, what you do here is you work with the grid, basically, right?
DALTON: Pretty much, yeah.
DOZIER: So obviously there isn’t a long extension cord running from the power plant to my house. Where does it go from there?
DALTON: Traditionally, it’s easiest to think about electricity as a three step process: generation, transmission, and distribution. So after electricity is generated, as we just discussed, it travels to customers through the electric grid. The electric grid is an interconnected network of power lines and other equipment for delivering electricity from the power plants to the consumers.
So, if you’re talking about transmission, it’s how we move the electricity through power lines at high voltage across long distances. Then you have distribution, which is when electricity travels through different wires at lower voltages to places like your homes and businesses. So think of it this way: a highway -- when you’re cruising along in your car at 80 miles per hour -- that’s transmission. To get from that highway to your house, you need to take an off ramp and slow down to 35 miles per hour. Then you’re driving on surface streets until you reach your destination -- that’s distribution.
DOZIER: So all these power plants and power lines and other stuff -- they make up the electrical grid, right?
DALTON: Yeah, pretty much. It’s one big system in North America. Of course, Hawaii and Alaska have islanded grids, but the North American grid is broken down into three big pieces. We call these interconnections. We have the Eastern Interconnect, the Western Interconnect, and then there’s Texas.
DOZIER: So Texas has its own power grid, basically?
DALTON: Pretty much.
DOZIER: Has it always been that way, or has it changed over time?
DALTON: It’s actually changed dramatically over time. So, back in the late 1800’s, when the first power plant opened in New York City, it only served eighty-two customers. Now we have a system in the United States with over 140 million customers.
Let me just take a step back and talk about what an amazing invention the electric grid is. 130 years ago, this thing didn’t exist. Now, almost everything we do relies on it. You charge your phone, you dry your hair, you watch TV, in some cases you drive electric vehicles, your financial transactions -- literally almost everything you do is possible because we figured out how to make this grid work.
It’s grown exponentially, it’s gotten more complicated, and today we’re seeing a massive change in the way that electricity is delivered and managed. You might drive through neighborhoods and see solar panels on roofs. Literally, customers are now able to produce their own electricity right at home. And the grid has to be updated to keep up with those changes.
DOZIER: One of the things the Department of Energy is doing is trying to make the grid work better, right? How are you helping with this transformation over time?
DALTON: So I probably should’ve added in there that the nation’s energy infrastructure is ninety percent owned by industry. So the role of the Department of Energy in this is to work with industry and modernize this grid by developing innovative technologies and providing technical assistance to states who are examining policies in light of these changes. We have literally invested billions of dollars over the last decade to help smooth this transition to ensure that our system is safer, reliable, secure. And now, thankfully, increasingly, more clean.
DOZIER: Well thanks so much, Liz. Really appreciate it.
DALTON: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.
LANTERO: So now that we understand how the commercial grid works, I think we’re ready to talk microgrids with an expert. That expert is Abraham Ellis, the manager of the Photovoltaics and Distributed System Integration Group at Sandia National Lab.
ELLIS: A microgrid is just a small version of a grid. But it is, in the case of a microgrid, designed to provide a local solution. So you can actually design a microgrid to meet the needs of something like a 100 year flood for example.
LANTERO: Basically, if another big storm hit Hoboken -- the kind that comes once every 100 years -- here’s how the microgrid would work. When the grid goes down, natural gas generators would kick on and distribute power to important buildings, like shelters, hospitals and City Hall, until full power was restored.
Once the idea for a microgrid arose, Mayor Zimmer and her staff started pitching it to various organizations who visited in the wake of the storm. And the Energy Department’s Sandia National Lab agreed to help study the feasibility of a microgrid.
ELLIS: On the technical side, the biggest challenge there is that the design basis for the project involved looking at a situation where the majority of the city of Hoboken would actually be underwater. Which was what happened during Hurricane Sandy. There were very few parts of the city that were actually dry.
LANTERO: And on top of figuring out how to keep cables dry, the team also had to look at how to connect services that were spread throughout different parts of the city -- sometimes miles apart.
ELLIS: For example, shelters, hospitals and fire stations and so on, that were in parts of the city that required us to cross quite a distance that might be underwater.
LANTERO:The Hoboken microgrid -- still in its design phase -- would be the first of its kind in the country. And Mayor Zimmer is keeping a watchful eye over the process.
ZIMMER: My number one job—is to keep the residents of Hoboken safe. So you--you know, you take it one step at a time, and you get to the top of the mountain, and that’s what we’re trying to do here in Hoboken.
LANTERO: And it isn’t just the Mayor who’s thinking about preparing for energy emergencies.
Every two years, the Department of Energy hosts the Solar Decathlon -- a competition that challenges teams of college students to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.
Remember Allison Outwater, the student from the beginning of the show? She was part of the Stevens’ Institute of Technology team that competed in last year’s Solar Decathlon against 13 teams from around the world. They called their storm-resistant design, the "Sure House.”
SOLAR DECATHLON ANNOUNCER: The first place overall winner of the Solar Decathlon 2015 goes to... Stevens Institute of Technology!
[Cheers and applause]
TEAM LEADER: On behalf of the whole Sure House team, we come from a community that has a lot of frustrated people dealing with rebuilding. We’re really happy to be here with some forward thinking ideas and really bring the energy back to our communities that we’re grown up in. Thanks to my team. Thanks to our great faculty and staff and all the support we have back home. Thanks guys.
LANTERO: And as a member of the winning design team, Allison’s experience during Sandy inspired parts of the storm-proofing on the house -- from storm shutters to waterproof materials.
OUTWATER: The shutters that we had on our home were really influenced by some of the experiences in Sandy. We had so many people who stayed that shouldn’t have stayed—they knew that they should have evacuated—but they were afraid to. They think that by staying they can protect their homes, and it’s the opposite. With Sure House, if you wanna be able to protect your home, you have to leave. You can only protect your home fully from the exterior, to be able to put the shutters down, you have to be on the exterior of the home, so that of course means that you need to leave the house. To be able to put the plugs in the windows and doors you need to be on the exterior of the home. That really encourages people to not stay at home.
LANTERO: Allison also served as the health and safety officer for the team.
OUTWATER: I’ve always kind of been that friend that always tells people not to do something stupid. My friends always joke with me about it, and especially from the first responders aspect, I feel a lot of people do stuff that could be prevented.
LANTERO: She was kind of like the team mom.
OUTWATER: Yeah, that’s very much what it was. Yeah.
LANTERO: But the team also provided assistance for community members who might not evacuate. Inspired by people who were plugging in powerstrips to help their neighbors, and recognizing that their solar-powered home might be a bright spot during a neighborhood power outage, they outfitted the house with charging ports.
OUTWATER: It’s a little box that’s actually for the car charger and mechanical equipment—but on the front of it we have these plugs that you see. They almost looks like the chargers in your car—like the round things, the covers, and in those are actually USB ports, and they’re completely watertight, so long as they’re closed. They can flood, and when the flood waters recede, those will be protected. And anyone from the community can come and use those ports—to be able to charge their phones or devices that they need, even if no one is in the home.
LANTERO: Neither the Sure house nor the microgrid is going to prevent another superstorm from happening. The goal here is resiliency, and helping a community bounce back in the wake of disaster.
Allison says the Sure House is coming back to New Jersey where it will serve as a reminder to be prepared for emergencies -- in the same way the goal of the microgrid is to prepare Hoboken for the next emergency that comes its way.
But Allison Outwater needs no reminder.
OUTWATER: I now carry flashlights with me everywhere. Because you never know when the power’s gonna go out.
[Thunder Clap and rain. The storm fades into atmospheric electronic music]
DOZIER: Okay, we know we threw a lot at you in this episode. So, head to energy.gov/podcast, where we put together some infographics, blogs and even a video to help explain the grid in even more detail.
LANTERO: And if you have questions about this episode feel free to send us an email at email@example.com or tweet @Energy. Subscribe to the show on iTunes, and if you get a chance, leave us a rating or review. We really appreciate the feedback.
DOZIER: We’d like to thank Allison Outwater, Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Caleb Stratton, Abraham Ellis, Liz Dalton and Alison Kennedy for helping us out with this episode.
LANTERO: Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier, Simon Edelman and me, Allison Lantero, with segment producer Daniel Wood. Art and design by Carly Wilkins. With support from Pat Adams, Paul Lester, Atiq Warraich, and Ernie Ambrose. Special thanks to our intern, Cole Edick, and our boss, Marissa Newhall.
DOZIER: Thanks to John LaRue, the Energy Public Affairs Team and the DOE Media Team.
We’re a production of the Department of Energy and published from our nation's capitol in Washington, D.C.
LANTERO: Until next time, thanks for listening!