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The journey of juice: Inside the electric grid

August 24, 2010 | | by Martin LaMonica

HOLYOKE, Mass.–In between power plants and the plug on the wall is this thing called the grid, an engineering marvel that’s largely invisible and impenetrably complex to most of us.

If you follow the grid network backwards behind the wall socket, the meter, and the utility poles on your street, you eventually get to a building called a grid operations center, where megawatts of energy flow from state to state and specially trained operators make split-second decisions that can mean the difference between blackouts or business as usual.

To get a better feel for how the grid works, I visited ISO New England here last week, one of several grid operators called independent system operators (ISOs) or regional transmission organizations (RTOs), which work behind the scenes to ensure delivery of electricity across the country.

The term “smart grid” often refers to smart meters on homes and businesses, but ISO New England is on the front lines of modernizing the wholesale grid, where energy is purchased and dispatched in bulk. It’s involved in a Department of Energy project to add high-speed sensors, called synchrophasors, to make the grid more reliable. And it’s on the cutting edge of using efficiency technology called demand response to keep the grid in balance when power plants can’t keep up with supply.

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