Inside Energy Questions: What Keeps Our Electric Grid Humming? No. Really.

Remember the 90s action movie Speed? The electric grid, our country’s biggest machine, is basically the bus from the movie.

The grid runs at a specific speed – its frequency – and if it gets too high or too low, the system wants to explode. Just like the bus in the move would explode if it fell below 50 miles per hour. Fortunately, the electric grid has its own Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, built right in, to keep it vibrating at the right speed.

Here are the basics:

The grid, and everything connected to it – power plants, power lines, even your home appliances – are designed to work at a specific frequency: 60 Hz.

As the electric grid constantly adapts to changes in how much energy people are using and how much energy is being generated, frequency fluctuates. Typically, it stays within a safe range, thanks to the built-in inertia of hydro, coal and natural gas plants and practices like load shedding.

But when the system deviates too far from 60 Hz, things can go haywire, leading to massive blackouts. The same thing that makes our electric grid reliable – it is large and interconnected – also makes it vulnerable.

For the full report, including cool illustrations of how riding a bicycle can illustrate the ups and downs of the power grid, please click here.

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