The Myth Of The National Grid

Commercial Tesla coil in operation, showing a large brush discharge from a metal wire attached to the toroidal high voltage terminal. Photo by OneTesla.

Let’s talk science. Specifically, let’s talk about electricity.

One thing I’ve been hearing about recently is the national grid, and specifically how Texas would have benefitted by being part of it. This really should be addressed.

First, let’s look at why El Paso is not on the Texas grid. There are very simple reasons: location and distance. El Paso is on the Western grid because it’s serviced by the Rio Grande Power Station in New Mexico, which was built in 1929 to supplement the Santa Fe Power Station that then provided energy to the surrounding area. That means the primary power plant which was built for this Texas city was built on the land of neighboring New Mexico, and that’s the “location” part of this equation. That’s a geopolitical decision. Distance is a scientific demand.

With electricity, there are things called “I squared R losses“. These are power losses as current passes through any conductor, and they are overwhelmingly represented as heat dissipation through the conductor. For the curious, “I” represents current (for those wondering why it’s not “C”, it’s because the designation was chosen by Ampere, the scientist who initially worked out many early electrical equations, and it stands for “Intensity of Current”) and “R” represents resistance.

Resistance exists in all real materials. They can have very little, such as is seen in superconductors, or they can allow almost no conductivity, which is the case for some things like rubber. We call the items that have very high resistance insulators, and we coat conductors with them to prevent accidental discharges.

Those losses are important, though. The occur in copper, and they occur in those places which still use old steel or aluminum wire as well. Most people focus on the heat. As current is sent through wire, the losses turn into heat and can start fires. This is why people are warned not to overload electrical outlets in their homes.

But there’s another point to consider, and that is simple power loss over distance. If you’re generating 1 kilowatt of power and you’re trying to power a device that’s one mile away, you’re going to lose some of that power to heat conversion as the electricity travels through the wires. If you’re generating that same kilowatt from twenty miles away, you’re going to lose twenty times as much of the power.

Let’s just make this simple and assume a very easy number to work with: 50 watts. If you lose 50 watts per mile over your power conduits, and you’re a mile away from the generating station, you’re left with 950 watts, enough to power most household devices. If you’re twenty miles away, you’re left without enough to power an LED.

(This is all greatly simplified, mind; the losses vary not only by the size of the power line and the composition of it but by the amount of current passing through at any given time and issues like the quality of the insulating material and air moisture. Any power plant which couldn’t adequately supply energy to a site twenty miles away would be terribly wasteful… the actual losses are typically closer to 5% over the expected coverage area. But I’m trying to illustrate the general issue.)

This simple physical truth of power dissipation is at the core of why El Paso and the surrounding area is not on the same grid as the rest of Texas. There are few nearby Texas power stations to link to; the amount of power which could be transferred to and from El Paso would be minimal, which means it’s not worth the effort for Texas to arrange with New Mexico to have the control over Rio Grande transferred.

But there’s another big truth involved here, one that’s being ignored: simply being part of the grid doesn’t mean power can be transferred.

The Western grid that encompasses El Paso also covers Seattle. In a pinch, if Seattle is stuck for power, many people think El Paso could send them some. They can’t. Distance prevents that from happening. The amount of energy El Paso would have to generate in order to reach Seattle would reduce the power lines to molten slag before they produced enough to power a single house.

What happens instead is coverage transfer. El Paso can adjust its coverage range to take up some of the slack for Luna Power Station, which can then adjust its coverage to take up some of the slack for its neighbors, all the way up until Seattle is covered… kind of. Because there are places, just like El Paso, where there isn’t a large population density and there simply isn’t the demand for large quantities of power production. If the game of electricity telephone hits one of those gaps, the ability to transfer power drops away.

Those gaps are a major reason why there is no actual “national grid”, and rather separate regional grids. There are emergency conduits available between the regional grids, but they are limited in size – as one would expect across a low-generation zone.

They are also one reason why other areas which are regularly hit by rolling blackouts, like California, aren’t able to easily take large quantities of energy from nearby states like Nevada and Oregon. Even when those states have extra energy available, the long stretches of desert and forest between populated (high production) zones result in a diminished ability to produce energy for California.

There’s been a lot of talk about the value of being on the national grid, as if that would have saved Texas from the power problems. In reality, Texas has power sharing agreements with Oklahoma and Arkansas and Louisiana alike; they had the ability to take some power from them. They were limited by two factors: the need of those states to provide power for themselves (thus, how much was available to lend), and the physical distance of the conduits in question.

There are problems which need to be addressed in the Texas power system. Being on one of the regional grids – shorthanded as “the national grid” – may sound nice, but it wouldn’t have done a thing toward a solution.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.