Power Grids and Electricity: Thoughts on the Power Problem

A power grid is a very vulnerable thing. It can be blown up, it can be blown down. It can get caught in the cross winds of economics and public policy. From the Bahamas to The Big Easy and Baghdad to Boca-stan, transformers and transmission lines are always under assault. Often the outside world is as dangerous to electric currents as they are to it. Hurricanes, earthquakes, sabotage, price spikes and human error all threaten the regular flow of electricity into our homes and businesses. Besides the catastrophic events that punctuate our increasingly technological lives, on average about 7% of the almost 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity generated in the U.S. annually is lost in transmission.

Given these drawbacks, it should come as no surprise that some of the brightest electrical engineers in history, from Nikola Telsa, the father of alternating current, to communications pioneer Hidetsugu Yagi, have dreamed of solving the power problem with models for wireless power distribution. Indeed, in a world of cellular phones, satellite imagery and the wireless web, it may seem odd that the foundational technology of our age has remained fairly uniform for almost one hundred years, flying the straight and narrow while the efforts to develop alternatives have never taken off the ground. Call it Occam’s Razor or just the power of good design, but our present method of energy transmission has long been the most popular and practical one available to any society wishing to animate it’s gadgets.

Power lines are so prevalent in many places that they have become almost the embodiment of the indispensable Euclidean abstraction, the line itself. Looking at an expanse of high tension wires, it is easy to think that they, like their graph paper facsimiles, can be projected forever. The wires seem like tangible evidence that nature, human or otherwise, will just have to bend to accommodate the linear infrastructure of our civilization.

Recent events remind us that this feeling is an illusion, a product of our relatively limited perception as we stand at the base of one node in a mammoth network. Even the straightest wires eventually take on the subtle curvature of this comparatively small planet. From that recognition comes the only serious answer to the power problem. If we wish to prepare for times of adversity, we would do well to leave the power grid out of our emergency plans entirely. We can and should turn instead to our social networks, our friends and families. They adjust far more rapidly to our dynamic needs in times of crisis. What’s even better, they come with a positive externality, they function just as well when the electricity is turned on too.

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