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It’s 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 sprawl.

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 the system.

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 latest news.

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 embraced.

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.

—Tom Nattell


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