Sunday, June 27, 2010

Flipping the switch

Often, just reading a magazine article sets my brain off. For instance, while reading about the inadequacies of this country's electrical grid in this week's National Geographic, a memory surfaced. A decade or more ago, as an editorial-page editor, I started getting letters to the editor from a lady who was so proud that she and her husband were "off the grid." They lived in the mountains west of Helena, had solar panels on the roof, had a buried heat system, had, as a backup, nothing but biofuel.

I had to like her. Her politics were my politics. But I had to ask myself - what the hell did her "going off the grid" have to do with you and me?

The grid, as it turns out, is not a matter of politics. It literally keeps us alive.

The electrical grid across the nation is a haphazard mess of local cooperatives, Edison-inspired entrepreneurs, Gilded-age railroad barrons wishing to expand, latter-day dreamers who saw one more dam as the hope of the future, far-seeing, big-spending businessmen, and modern wind-farm dudes. Yet the grid is cool: When I turn on my TV, the electron energy zapping my machine into action was created only seconds before, hundreds or thousands of miles away. There that energy is, whenever I want it! Is that cool, or what?

Very recently, my (land-line) phone system crashed and a tech came out to fix it. He diagnosed the problem with a little hand-held device, was up on a ladder against my house, up to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and down in my basement. He installed new cables. The system worked again!

Without such service, where would my phone service be? Without similar service, where would my electrical power be?

But overall, according to the magazine article, the nationwide grid is in trouble, big time. It fails to meet modern needs. It must be upgraded to use greener power. It must get smart enough to avoid the failure of a system its builders created back when a "smart" electrical system wasn't even a dream.

I had an editor, back in the day, who sputtered in an editorial about a power outage that shut down the newspaper for hours.The power company responded in a letter to the editor, saying essentially that these things happen.

Nowadays, big power outages cost billions. The grid needs not only to avoid outages, but to better regulate power and get consumers to conserve it intelligently. The grid needs to get into the 21st Century. Unfortunately, the power grid across the country is old, antiquated, and in need of upgrading in a hurry. Think of that, next time you flip a switch. The chances keep increasing that nothing will happen.

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