America’s Electric Grid: Why Is Our Thinking in the Dark?

I remember working in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1999 as the U.S. was bracing for the “big one.” The end of the world. Armageddon. A scare known as Y2K. The electric industry was put under a microscope to ensure that the grid would survive the stroke of midnight on the evening of December 31, 1999.

As others in D.C. were following Prince’s lead to “party like it’s 1999,” a few of us from the three electric utility trade organizations — the American Public Power Association, the Edison Electric Institute and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association — were sitting in a coordination center with federal agencies, watching the world clocks tick to year 2000. Did the world come to an end? Nope. Were there disruptions or fluctuations in service? None.

So, outside of my wasting a good New Year’s Eve, what did I learn that 1999? A few important facts:

  1. Don’t always believe the hype that the sky is falling.
  2. The electric industry has faced many challenges. The Y2K scare is one example of how we can adapt to counter a host of threats.
  3. The U.S. has a resilient, robust grid with a level of reliable service that is among the world’s best.
  4. Costs matter.

Let’s dive deeper into these lessons from 15 years ago that are still golden.

Fact #1: The sky isn’t falling
I’ve been in this industry since 1983, when I started as a cooperative student at the local utility in Philadelphia. However, my father was a Westinghouse man. So my real power industry career started much earlier, in the late 60s or early 70s. Dad embedded the utility industry mantra into my young engineering brain: empirical and evidence-based science wins over hype. The U.S. utility industry has successfully delivered its services for over a century. We don’t expect to fail anytime soon.

Fact #2: We’re prepared for threats
The utility industry faces a host of threats every day. We know we must be prepared for attacks, both cyber and physical. We deal with threats such as electromagnetic pulses, geomagnetic disturbances, hurricanes, ice, floods, tornadoes and more. The list expands all the time. The industry invests in identifying threats and preparing to counter them.

Fact # 3: The grid is resilient and robust
The industry has been investing in improving the grid every year, decade after decade. Recently, we’ve seen an upward trend in transmission and substation investment. The grid is being modernized through smart meters, distribution automation, outage management systems, synchrophasors, and modern generation portfolios dominated by combined cycle gas plants and renewable energy.

Fact #4: Costs do matter
After a storm and outage, you always hear the argument that all electric lines should be transferred underground. Okay, I’m all for that. But who pays?

Likewise, when I sit in D.C. traffic I like to say, “All highways should be 10 lanes wide so I can move faster.” Sounds great, but is it economically feasible?

Give it a try in your community. Go to your school board meeting and declare, “All public schools should have a teacher-to-student ratio of one teacher to five students!” Someone will soon tell you that the cost to build and maintain such a school system would bankrupt the community.

We power engineers are certainly frugal, and we love to be as economically efficient as possible. However, we also know that the best way to keep a system running well is to maintain the system while investing back into the infrastructure.

I’ve traveled to many parts of the world. I decry statements like, “[The] U.S. has a third-world electric grid,” as DOE Secretary Richardson said in 1999. Rather, every time we flip a light switch, we see “the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century,” as the National Academy of Engineering described the U.S. electric grid in 2003.

Let’s give ourselves credit for doing a good thing, and doing it well – and for the commitment to making it better while remaining fair to taxpayers and customers who pay the bills.


Mike Hyland is Senior Vice President of Engineering Services at the American Public Power Association.

Morning Consult