Power to the People
Everyone knows how important electricity is to our lives. All it takes is a power failure to remind us how much we depend on it. Life would be very different without electricity—no more instant light from flicking a switch, no more television, no more refrigerators, or stereos, or video games, or hundreds of other conveniences we take for granted. We depend on it, business depends on it, and industry depends on it. You could almost say the American economy runs on electricity.
It is the responsibility of electric utility companies to make sure electricity is there when we need it. They must consider reliability, capacity, base load, peak demand, and power pools.
Reliability is the capability of a utility company to provide electricity to its customers 100 percent of the time. A reliable electric service is without blackouts or brownouts. To ensure uninterrupted service, laws require most utility companies to have 15 to 20 percent more capacity than they need to meet peak demand. This means a utility company whose peak load is 12,000 megawatts (MW) must have 14,000 MW of installed electrical capacity. This ensures that there will be enough electricity to meet demand even if equipment were to break down on a hot summer afternoon.
Capacity is the total quantity of electricity a utility company has on-line and ready to deliver when people need it. A large utility company may operate several power plants to generate electricity for its customers. A utility company that has seven 1,000 MW plants, eight 500 MW plants, and 30 100 MW plants has a total capacity of 14,000 MW.
Base load power is the electricity generated by utility companies around-the-clock, using the most inexpensive energy sources—usually coal, nuclear, and hydropower. Base load power stations usually run at full or near capacity.
When many people want electricity at the same time, there is a peak demand. Power companies must be ready for peak demands so there is enough power for everyone. During the day’s peak, between 12:00 noon and 6:00 p.m., additional generators must be used to meet the demand. These peak load generators run on natural gas, diesel, or hydropower and can be put into operation in minutes. The more this equipment is used, the higher our utility bills. By managing the use of electricity during peak hours, we can help keep costs down.
The use of power pools is another way electric companies make their systems more reliable. Power pools link electric utilities together so they can share power as it is needed. A power failure in one system can be covered by a neighboring power company until the problem is corrected. There are nine regional power pool networks in North America. The key is to share power rather than lose it.
The reliability of U.S. electric service is excellent, usually better than 99 percent. In some countries, electric power may go out several times a day for several minutes or several hours at a time. Power outages in the United States are usually caused by such random occurrences as lightning, a tree limb falling on electric wires, or a fallen utility pole.