The grid is wondrous. And yet—in part because we've paid so little attention to it, engineers tell us—it's not the grid we need for the 21st century. It's too old. It's reliable but not reliable enough, especially in the United States, especially for our mushrooming population of finicky digital devices. Blackouts, brownouts, and other power outs cost Americans an estimated $80 billion a year. And at the same time that it needs to become more reliable, the grid needs dramatic upgrading to handle a different kind of power, a greener kind. That means, among other things, more transmission lines to carry wind power and solar power from remote places to big cities.
Most important, the grid must get smarter. The precise definition of "smart" varies from one engineer to the next. The gist is that a smart grid would be more automated and more "self-healing," and so less prone to failure. It would be more tolerant of small-scale, variable power sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, in part because it would even out fluctuations by storing energy—in the batteries of electric cars, according to one speculative vision of the future, or perhaps in giant caverns filled with compressed air.
But the first thing a smart grid will do, if we let it, is turn us into savvier consumers of electricity. We'll become aware of how much we're consuming and cut back, especially at moments of peak demand, when electricity costs most to produce. That will save us and the utilities money—and incidentally reduce pollution. In a way, we'll stop being mere passive consumers of electrons. In the 21st century we'll become active participants in the management of this vast and seemingly unknowable network that makes our civilization possible.
So maybe it's time we got to know it.
There are grids today on six continents, and someday Europe's may reach across the Mediterranean into Africa to carry solar power from the Sahara to Scandinavia. In Canada and the U.S. the grid carries a million megawatts across tens of millions of miles of wire. It has been called the world's biggest machine. The National Academy of Engineering calls it the greatest engineering achievement of the last century.
Thomas Edison, already famous for his lightbulb, organized the birth of the grid in 1881, digging up lower Manhattan to lay down copper wires inside brick tunnels. He constructed a power plant, the Pearl Street Station, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. On September 4, 1882, in the office of tycoon J. P. Morgan, Edison threw a switch. Hundreds of his bulbs lit up Drexel, Morgan & Co. and other offices nearby.