(NaturalNews) India's recent massive power grid failure - the largest in history which left some 670 million people without power - has renewed calls for so-called smart grids in the United States, as some analysts have questioned whether a similar event could occur in North America.
Initial thoughts of a similar situation happening in the U.S. draw criticism from many quarters, especially from power industry officials who note that the American grid is much more hearty.
"But there are still situations that can cause major failures, and the interconnected nature of the electrical grid means a problem in one place can be far-reaching," writes Jesse Emspak at Discovery News.
Steven Greenlee, a spokesman for the California Independent System Operator Corporation, which manages power distribution for much of the state, notes that interconnectivity.
"Our grid is just one big machine," he said.
Keeping it all even
The country's infrastructure of power grids provides a constant flow and amount of energy; the voltage and current are related and must be kept at certain levels. Another facet of an alternating current system is that its generators must run in sync.
What that means is that the loads on equipment that transmits the power have to remain in balance. Excessive demand in one region pulls more current through the grid, which results in a drop in voltage.
"But running more current has another effect: Equipment heats up. The power lines, substations and everything else that make up the grid are all designed to operate up to a certain temperature," writes Emspak.
Think of a home. The electrical system is wired into a fuse box; circuit breakers trip when they get too hot. Older systems feature fuses, which blow out when they are overtaxed.
In an electrical grid, a drop in voltage on a transmission line, such as when ice or a tree downs one, creates a situation where the electrical load on the line has to be rebalanced. Power is shunted to lines that are still up and functioning. But that then places an extra load on them because the total amount of energy in the system remains the same. If enough lines crash, grids are designed to reduce their loads automatically by shutting down power to those areas.
And that may just be the way it is - in the U.S., India and elsewhere - for the foreseeable future.
Experts note that the current line-and-wire distribution system is what we are stuck with, likely for decades to come.
That means blackouts will continue to be a reality, though the better the power infrastructure, the less likely they are to happen.
"There's no magic technology that's going to allow us to transmit power wirelessly," Bob Gohn, vice president of research for Boulder-based Pike Research, told Discovery News in a separate interview.
"But there is a future with greater distributed power that is more independent, having your own power generation or with solar or gas power plants, and using storage systems to run your home for a while," he said.
Smart grid equals smarter technology
He says one idea floating around is to produce power locally by combining small-scale power generation with larger batteries located in homes as one way to get your house off the power grid. Such a system would be more reliable, quieter and produce less CO2 emissions than using a backup generator.
Some communities are already experimenting with the concept. Homes power electric storage systems combining solar panels, electric vehicles and smart-meter technology to get more homeowners off power grids and become more power independent.
"You may not run your entire house," says Gohn, "but you could keep your refrigerator going for a while."
Smart-grid experts are encouraging utilities to utilize wireless technology and advanced software systems to help them get a better handle on which houses, specifically, have been affected by outages.
"They won't prevent an outage, but they might allow you to restore things more quickly," Matt Wakefield, senior program manager of smart grid systems for the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-based non-profit group, told DN.