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The Electric Detectives with Mike Legatt

October 6, 2017

In this episode, we delve into darkness to discover where electricity comes from - by learning what happens when it disappears. 

 

The electric grid is a system of power plants, power lines, and power companies that all work together to bring electricity to your home - and any other place that needs electricity! There are THREE electric grids in the United States - one in the east, one in the west, and one in Texas.

 

During the episode, we visit ERCOT - the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It's the place that monitors and controls the flow of electricity through Texas' electric grid. ERCOT does much more than monitor transmission lines. They're also responsible for making sure power plants are supplying consistent energy to the grid, and that demand for electricity is balanced with supply. They work hard at it, and the grid stayed functional even through Hurricane Harvey. 

This is what the gigantic digital "wallboard" looks like. In the middle, you can see Mike Legatt's "Macomber Map." It's the map with all the colorful lines. Here's a video with Mike to explain more about how it works: 

 

 And here's a (silent) example of how a control room operator can figure out which lines are most heavily loaded:

 

This special map makes it easy for the control room operator to determine what information he's getting, instead of sorting through data that distracts with the main problem. As Mike says in the episode, "One of the things that I think engineers do is in order to solve a problem is look at this piece of the problem that we want to solve. If that piece doesn't include the human beings then you might come up with a really good technical solution, but maybe then when that goes in front of the human being it doesn't work the way that you meant it to." 

 

Take a bigger look at how the grid works (in the UK!) 

 

In the episode, we talked about a situation when the power went out because of a grid failure. But it's not the most common reason for people to lose electricity. For example, an electrical circuit might break in your own home, without affecting your neighbors. 

 

Or, you've probably experienced the power going out during a storm. In the case of major natural disasters, the power can go out for days, weeks, or even months, until the infrastructure can be fixed. And that has a huge impact on people. But failures are also seen as opportunities to improve the way the grid works, and what it runs on.

 

Take these stories in the news: 

 

After the Hurricanes, Could We Rebuild a Stronger, Greener Grid?

 

Puerto Rico's Devastated Electric Grid Could Be a Huge Opportunity for Renewable Energy

 

More than 10 Million People Lost Power in Florida

 

 

Next time the power goes out in your home, think about what is happening behind the light switch? Is there a storm? Did a fuse blow? Or did the grid fail on its own? 

 

Learn more about the grid with our FREE ELECTRIC GRID SCAVENGER HUNT, available for download on Patreon!

 

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