The electricity keeps flowing, but in a smarter way
by Lauren Nicole Scott (PhD ’18)
In 2015, my home lost electricity due to a record-breaking windstorm. While I knew I had no power, I still caught myself walking into the kitchen for a flash light and mindlessly reaching for the light switch. My guess is that others have had this experience too. Because electricity is pervasive in today’s society and outages are rare, it is easy to ignore—even when confronted with all the inconveniences of its absence. According to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration (2016), in 2015, electricity customers experienced an average of only slightly more than three hours of service disruption per year.
It is actually quite remarkable that we are so accustomed to a near-continuous supply of power. In the past 20 years, our nation’s electricity grid has undergone massive changes largely without disruption. Gradually, we are transitioning from a system of one-way power flows heavily reliant on environmentally degrading fossil-fuels to a “Smart Grid,” a system of two-way power flows in which homes and business can also engage in electricity production from cleaner sources of generation. These changes, barely noticeable to most consumers, are made possible with advancements in information and communication technology (ICT). In my sociology dissertation (“The Pursuit of Smart Grid: New Tools of the Trade, 2018”), I set out to understand this change and its long-term consequences.
To do so, I began attending professional meetings of electricity industry experts. I conducted more than 50 in-depth interviews and spent a couple hundred hours observing conference papers and discussions. I found myself learning about all aspects of this transition—from the physical aspects of the grid to government regulations of the industry.
While the traditional grid met the needs of society during the 20th century, it was clear by the early 2000s that some aspects of the grid were damaging to the environment and had grown increasingly difficult to maintain. A grand vision of replacing that grid had begun to emerge, as explained by many of those who shared their knowledge and experience with me.
The essence of Smart Grid is that ICT provides more information at quicker speeds than was possible with the traditional grid. This communications technology may allow grid operators to reduce stress on existing infrastructure, to operate the grid more efficiently, and to respond more quickly to changes in power needs. It also helps facilitate renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, alleviating the industry’s impact on the environment. In 2017, 17 percent of U.S. electricity generation came from renewables, up from 10 percent in 2010 (EIA 2011; 2018). While reflecting on the significance of Smart Grid, an engineer told me:
The change that we’re engaged in and are facing is the same magnitude of change of going from Edison’s little DC system with a generator and a bunch of light bulbs to Samuel Insull’s vertically integrated electric utilities…. And now, we’re facing that same level of disruption, only it’s a bigger issue and it’s a lot more chaotic.
Experts also explained that Smart Grid is a response to multiple considerations: technological innovation in the telecommunications field, changing electricity consumption patterns, and growing environmental concern which has affected laws and regulations. For example, some states have passed aggressive renewable energy goals. California, for instance, just passed a law, effective in two years, which would require every new home to have solar panels (Penn 2018). A Smart Grid would help safely accommodate this additional solar electricity.
My reason for taking a deep dive into the electricity industry’s transition to Smart Grid was to understand institutional change and the inherent conflict between forces trying to maintain old practices and replace them with new ones. Sometimes, change happens because old companies are replaced by new ones. But that has not happened in the case of the electricity industry. My research shows that development of Smart Grid was articulated and cultivated by long-standing organizations within the industry—perhaps because these organizations possess the expertise required to run the grid. Moreover, change to the grid needed to happen seamlessly, and mostly without notice from consumers. Dramatic changes to the industry’s organizational structure would likely disrupt the continuous supply of electricity which society has come to expect and depend upon.
Despite the efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability benefits of Smart Grid, participants warned that it is more complex and tightly-coupled than the traditional grid. According to sociologist Charles Perrow, accidents are inevitable in complex and tightly coupled systems. The industry’s response to this growing risk? Try all safe-guards and remain optimistic. According to an industry consultant who spoke with me:
“Now, those problems are what you might call unintended consequences…of you doing something and then you realize, ‘I created some other issues.’ But essentially, that’s life. I mean, that’s how things happen. That’s how innovation happens.”
The electricity grid is arguably our nation’s most critical infrastructure and it permeates nearly every aspect of our lives. Yet, in 2016 the production of electricity accounted for 35 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (EIA 2017). If we want to address climate change, we must continue to tackle the problem of how to transform the grid to be more sustainable. At the same time, a more sustainable grid comes with added risk. Therefore, the electricity industry must determine how to make this transition while maintaining the continuous supply of power that is essential to modern society.
Penn, Ivan. 2018. “California Will Require Solar Power for New Homes.” New York: New York Times. Retrieved September 10, 2018. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/business/energy-environment/california-solar-power.html).
U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2011. “Renewable and Alternative Fuels.” Washington D.C.: U.S. Eneergy Information Administration. Retrieved September 10, 2018. (https://www.eia.gov/renewable/annual/preliminary/).
U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2016. “EIA Data Shows Average Frequency and Duration of Electric Power Outages.” Washington D.C.: U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved September 10, 2018. (https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=27892).
U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2017. “How Much of U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions Are Associated with Electricity Generation?”. Washington D.C.: U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved February 20, 2018 (https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=77&t=11).
U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2018. “Electricity in the United States.” Washington D.C.: U.S. Energy Information Administration. Retrieved September 10, 2018. (https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=electricity_in_the_united_states).