The End of the Steampunk Grid

Compound Tandem Horizontal Engine and Dynamo
Compound Tandem Horizontal Engine and Dynamo (1905). This is still how we make electricity.

I just finished reading Alexandra von Meier’s book, Electric Power Systems: A Conceptual Introduction. It’s an overview of how the generation, transmission, and distribution system works, and how it’s worked for pretty much the whole history of the grid, stretching back to the end of the 19th century. More than anything I came away with an appreciation for the gloriously analog nature of the machine. We have a steampunk grid, a massive artifact of the Victorian era, hiding behind and powering our increasingly digital world. This isn’t an engineering textbook, but it’s not exactly meant for a popular audience either. There’s an ongoing stream of complex numbers, calculus references, vectors, matrices, and electromagnetic fields… and without some understanding of them, a lot of the core ideas in the book will probably not come across very well.

At the upstream edge of the grid, we have thousands of gigantic machines, spinning in almost perfect synchronization. Massive amounts of iron and copper, literally turned by steam. They’ve gotten bigger and hotter and more precise and efficient over time, but they’re fundamentally the same type of generation the grid grew up with a century ago.

At the downstream edge of the grid, in large part we have the same kind of machines… but running in reverse, taking the undulating waves of electricity, and turning them back into rotation, through an invisible, smoothly spinning force-field. It’s like magic, but it’s something we’ve all lived with our entire lives. It’s so normal we don’t think about it.

Between these spinning machines we have masses of iron and tightly wound copper stepping voltage up and down, mechanical switches that look like something out of Frankenstein, and very little in the way of instrumentation and automation — at least by present day standards. And with a few exceptions, the electricity really does flow from one edge of the grid to the other in a dendritic network.

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Xcel backing away from solar-thermal enabling San Luis Valley transmission

Xcel appears to be backing away from new transmission lines to the San Luis Valley.  This infrastructure is required to implement the several hundred megawatts of solar-thermal generation that they proposed in their 2007 resource plan.  Solar thermal is the only renewable power (other than pumped hydro, which has limited availability) for which energy storage is potentially feasible right now (e.g. using huge tanks of molten salt).  It’s interesting to contrast the utility’s statements on the San Luis Valley project with what they’re saying about the Pawnee retrofit, and what they said about the Comanche 3 plant.