The electric energy grid: what you need to know

From left to right, Mandy Connell, Drew Bolin, Salman Mohgheghi, and Jason Fenoglio Photo by Freda Miklin


On April 21, Canvas Credit Union, formerly Public Service Credit Union, served as the setting for a fascinating program on the current state of the energy grid. The program was sponsored by South Metro Denver Chamber with a generous breakfast provided by Rudi’s Deli & Catering lo-cated at the corner of Lincoln Ave. and Peoria St.

Popular KOA Radio Host Mandy Connell moderated the panel that consisted of energy experts Salman Mohagheghi, Associate Professor, Electrical Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines, Drew Bolin, Director of Strategic Communications, Colorado PUC, and Jason Fenoglio, Cybersecurity Practice Manager at High Touch Technologies.

Dr. Mohagheghi began the discussion by clarifying, “The electric power grid is a network of lines and substations that connect power generation plants to demand centers. These power plants convert different types of energy into electric energy. This can be the kinetic energy in wind, energy in running water, chemical energy in fossil fuels, or the electromagnetic energy of solar radiance. Because these power plants are far away from demand centers, sometimes by design, sometimes by necessity, the power generated needs to be transmitted towards cities and towns through a network of overhead lines, transmission lines, and distribution lines… To reduce power losses, we increase the voltage at the power plant. As we get closer to cities, the voltage is gradually stepped down.”

He explained that a key responsibility of every utility company is to, “make sure that at any moment in time, there is a balance between (power) generation and demand.” Power comes from multiple locations and any mismatch of supply and demand can result in a potential blackout. Utilities use sophisticated modeling to constantly predict when energy will be dispatched, one day in advance, again 30 to 60 minutes in advance, and a third time, 5 to 10 minutes before it is needed, “because demand changes.” In order to know how much electricity is needed to go to each location from each power plant on the grid, accurate information of demand is required at all times.

Renewable sources of energy like wind and solar are harder to predict, since they rely on weather conditions. Moving away from fossil fuels to renewables has created new challenges for predicting electricity needs, though its benefits of less pollution and other negative impacts to the environmental are far more important, according to Mohagheghi.

Utilities have addressed the challenge of intermittency of wind and solar using “different types of energy storage systems,” including pump-hydro storage using water and also batteries, both of which are relatively expensive. It must also be considered that batteries require scarce minerals, mined in parts of the world where conditions of doing so are unknown and likely inconsistent with American values.

Another tool used by utilities is “demand-response,” in which customers are incentivized to reduce their demand. One example is the energy saver switch many electricity customers now employ.

In his presentation, Drew Bolin quoted two utility CEOs as recently having said they expect the demand for electricity to triple by 2050. Later, Fenoglio pointed out that two electric cars increase household electricity use by 40%.

Bolin explained that the U.S. has three separate electrical grids, the western grid, the eastern grid, and the Texas grid. Although he didn’t want to say much about the Texas grid, which many will remember failed after a Category 5 hurricane on February 15, 2021, the western and eastern grids serve as back-ups for one another in the event of a drastic failure.

In response to a question about how the energy grid will continue to change in the future, Dr. Mohagheghi point-ed first to the ever-increasing demand that Bolin described, then to structural changes, such as solar panels on roofs that change the distribution system from a top-down one to one where customers, “inject power back into the grid and get paid for it.”

He also noted the increasing trend to construct “smart homes,” that are designed to be more energy efficient by adjusting energy use to when the demand for electricity is higher or lower on the grid, e.g., running a dishwasher in the middle of the night or cycling air conditioning on very hot days.

When the moderator asked if Colorado was on track to meet the expected increased demand for electricity, Bolin pointed to the planned $1.7 billon Colorado Power Pathway, which, when built, will consist of 300 miles of high voltage transmission lines running between northeastern Colorado and eastern Colorado, to access new wind and solar projects.

He also talked about SB21-072 Public Utilities Commission Modernize Electric Transmission Infrastructure approved by the state legislature two years ago “to fund the study of small modular nuclear reactors for north-western Colorado, where some of the coal plants are, and Craig and Hayden, which were generation stations for Xcel, and also in southeast Colorado,” explaining that there could be opportunities for small modular reactors there. Although that technology “is still in its infancy,” he assured everyone that it is safe, and that, “There’s no way there could be a melt-down.”

Jason Fenoglio said that cybersecurity is relatively new for the energy grid, which was attacked approximately 30 times last year, primarily through ransomware. He pointed to two recent attacks in North Carolina, “where people were shooting at the grid,” and shut down a local system for several days, adding that the U.S. Department of Energy has brought on the Office of Cybersecurity Energy Security and Emergency Response to protect the energy grid, allocating $45 million to begin to research how to provide that protection.

What worries Fenoglio is, “There are a lot of ‘smart’ appliances that take a lot of energy and are consistently being attacked, and we don’t have the consumer education out there to talk to people about changing their passwords, changing their default configurations. A simple at-tacker going in and creating a botnet (a network of hijacked internet-connected devices that are installed with malicious codes known as mal-ware) within a localized area could successfully bring high demand to the grid. There are definitely complex attacks being orchestrated now…”

He reminded everyone that the U.S. energy grid is “very complicated and fragmented, pointing out that in Colorado alone, there are five large energy companies, 29 co-operative energy companies, and 22 more that are municipally owned. It isn’t a question of if, but when attacks will happen.

According to Fenoglio, “The good news is that elec-tricity bills are going to be going down…Natural gas prices are going down to his-torical lows… the lowest in five years.”

On the question of new technologies, he said, “In terms of nuclear, 60% of the used uranium is sitting where it was used, and the feed stock for this new fourth-generation nuclear is actually used ura-nium that can be re-used in these new plants. What could be better than using nuclear waste as the feed stock for this new generation nuclear? And it’s smaller, so it seems like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would approve those. Also, there is existing transmission at these places (such as) Craig and Hayden. If you were to put something these, you have existing transmission…But the NRC has a standard that is for the worst possible scenar-io, so that’s going to slow it down a lot.”

He ended by pointing to ongoing research being conducted by large energy companies to meet future demand as they move away from fossil fuels.

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