all around you. It sur-rounds your home and runs down streets
and through backyards. It densely swirls in the urban scene
and stretches out in long lumbering lines across the countryside.
It runs from coast to coast and border to border. It doesn’t
recognize state lines and trespasses property lines with impunity.
It loses much of what it carries, and is known to occasionally
crash without warning or explanation. It is the electrical
grid, the distribution system for most of the electricity
generated in this country.
The grid is that massive maze of wires—strung through metal
towers, transformers and wooden poles—along which electricity
moves from its point of generation to the electrical outlets
in your home. This chaotic mass of transmission wires and
supporting devices is overseen by systems of computers that
direct electricity traffic along its 500,000-mile North American
A simplified version of how the grid works is as follows:
Electricity is generated by a turbine that is spun by water
or steam at a power plant that may use a variety of energy
sources including the flow of water through a dam, coal, natural
gas, or uranium. The stream of electrons generated is then
conducted through a series of wires and transformers that
move the electricity and alter its voltage. With each transformation
and movement, some electricity is lost.
Eventually the grid becomes the three wires that attach to
your home. Two of these provide 120 volts each, while the
third is a grounding wire. The two 120-volt wires provide
the electricity found at the household outlet, which allows
for the operation of both 120-volt and 240-volt appliances.
The electricity eventually available at the household outlet
animates all those electricity-dependent machines that have
invaded our homes.
This grid distributes energy only in the form of electricity.
It is a constantly expanding disarray of wire unwinding over
the land. Its web of power lines distributes energy, but it
also controls it. As voltage is moving around the countryside,
the grid is used to control the amount of electricity sent
to each area, and the mix of generating facilities that constitute
the current’s source.
The grid centralizes the distribution of electricity. For
most of us, the only way electricity can get to our outlets
is through this hard-wired web. In the Capital District, National
Grid (aka Niagara Mohawk), a British company, owns our local
distribution system. While you can buy electricity from other
vendors, you have to pay National Grid a monthly charge for
using the grid to get it to your home. What you get is what’s
available on the grid, not necessarily what you may have paid
for. Even those who pay extra each month for alternative energy
sources still get the same energy mix as everyone else on
their branch of the grid. The national electrical grid is
made up of a patchwork of companies like National Grid that
control where electricity comes from and where it goes.
The grid is dependent on the availability of private and public
lands. I have a power pole in a far corner of my back yard
that supports lines across the neighborhood and distributes
electricity to two other homes besides my own. National Grid
has never offered me any compensation or break on my monthly
bill for this use of my yard. National Grid does, however,
feel free to trespass on my property to mutilate trees that
may threaten their power lines. The threat my trees pose is
nothing compared to the much larger threats ready to disrupt
On Aug. 14 the largest power outage in U.S. history cascaded
across the Northeast and a good chunk of Canada to ultimately
put an estimated 50 million people in the dark. That the lights
wouldn’t come on was only a small part of the resultant difficulties.
With so much of daily life in this country dependent upon
electrically powered computers, the outage’s impact was far-ranging.
As the hours ticked by, billions of dollars in losses accumulated
in the national economy, frozen food thawed, candles became
valued commodities and battery-powered radios relayed the
I was in Spain when the grid crashed and the first three stories
I saw blamed a tree in Ohio for the event and raised the specter
of terrorist involvement. (I was expecting to hear George
W. proclaim the tree a terrorist suspect.) While official
investigations are still trying to sort out what happened,
the vulnerability of the grid to its own centralization has
become increasingly clear. This mega-network for distributing
electricity has become vulnerable to its own massiveness,
with more future outages expected. It was ironic that in a
country so fixated on national security it would be revealed
that this electrical distribution system is so vulnerable
that it might be brought down by computer viruses or moderately
skilled hackers. Scientists have also indicated that the electromagnetic
storms currently erupting from the sun’s surface might be
another source of serious disruption of the grid.
George W. and his administration are considering channeling
billions of dollars to fix the grid. Of course, this means
taxpayer dollars going to address problems that are currently
the responsibility of private companies and, in our local
situation, a company based in another country. Some have argued
that the current state of disrepair in the grid has been exacerbated
by the energy deregulation policies that George W. has enthusiastically
It seems to me that instead of providing billions of dollars
to bankroll private corporations to fix the grid, the focus
should first be on bringing this chaotic system under effective
regulatory control. Dollars could also be more efficiently
spent fostering the development of expanded home-based electrical
generation capacity through solar and other technologies,
as well as increasing energy efficiency efforts. Only through
such a decentralization of the electrical system will its
security be a real possibility.