The Room that Controls your Electric Sockets
Did you know that a giant room in a nondescript building in Eagan, MN controls your electric sockets? Reminiscent of a scene from Dr. Strangelove, a full wall of brightly colored lines and blips and bits represents the sale and flow of electricity from Manitoba to Louisiana. Welcome to the North Operations Center of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO (“MY-so”). You might call it the grid.
You’ll have to leave your phone behind. You will need ID, and to pass a stringent security check. A friendly tour guide will explain all.
What is this magic called electricity?
Electric current flows across transmission wires in alternating current (AC), in which the polarity of the electrons reverses at regular intervals. This regular pulse forms sine waves—remember trigonometry?—that peak sixty times a second, or 60 Hz. In the familiar three-wire configuration, these waves peak in sequence, which is known as three-phase power. Industrial electric motors and phone chargers alike rely on the consistency of these phases, and so frequency is a measure of power quality.
The current zips around the grid at the speed of light to where it can do electrical work, like power the screen you’re looking at right now. We express electrical work by the watt, named for James Watt, who invented the steam engine. The unit on your electric bill, kWh, refers to work over time. One kWh represents 10 100 W light bulbs (or 100 very sexy 10 W LED bulbs) left on for an hour.
The grid doesn’t only need to deliver your electricity, but it needs to deliver the right amount at the right frequency. The former requires continental-scale anticipation of and response to society’s electrical needs; the latter, a precise measurement of electrical pulses in your neighborhood. Quantity and quality—MISO ensures both.
While the control room in Eagan helps MISO fulfill its mission on a continental-size scale, it must work with other grid operators in North America to direct the flow of electricity at—literally—the speed of light. And while that electricity does not give a spark about state lines, the humans that use it do. Here in Minnesota, we do not mine coal, uranium, or any petroleum products, but we do produce a sizeable amount of renewable power from Minnesota sunshine, breezes, and rivers. On a net basis, Minnesota imports roughly 10% of its electricity.
The Shadowy (or not so shadowy) figures of the FERC & the PUC
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as electrification spread across the country like the hot craze that it was, each utility sold electricity wherever it could string wires. One contracted for electricity like much like one contracts for tv or internet today, and regulation was light to nonexistent. As utilities grew, their monopolistic qualities grew more apparent.
Enormous capital costs and a low marginal cost for the next kilowatt hour meant (and still means) that entrenched electricity providers face little direct competition. The obvious nineteenth-century analog was the railroad, and so electric utilities were regulated like railroads. Today’s state Public Utility Commissions (PUC) evolved from this common history of regulation of “natural monopolies.” They balance the public interest of affordable, reliable service with the private interest of return on investment.
But, what if a burgeoning electric company needs more electricity than its power plants can produce, or vice versa? If it connected with its neighboring utility, it could buy and sell electricity at a wholesale rate. As utilities began wholesale exchange of kWh, they jump-started the modern grid. And when these wires eventually crossed state lines, they fell under the purview of the federal government.
As America electrified over the first half of the twentieth century, the federal government expanded its administrative role. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) grew out of the Federal Power Administration at the creation of the Department of Energy in the late 1970s. It regulates the interstate transmission of electricity and other forms of energy, like pipelines.
So, where does our Eagan control room fit in? MISO and other grid operators like it are non-profit organizations with stakeholder membership. These collective solutions to collective problems arose from an administrative order some 20 years ago. FERC, through Order 2000, required electric utilities around the country to join or form organizations like MISO.
This administrative move radically altered electric markets in America. MISO and other grid operators must provide a neutral, third-party venue for trades of wholesale electricity at a given location, through a process known as Locational Marginal Pricing (LMP). The LMPs at each substation—where large, often interstate transmission lines step down to local distribution lines, like a highway off-ramp—signal to utilities the local price for wattage over the next time interval. This process introduces competition to what was formerly a natural monopoly. The wall-size screens in Eagan are full of these LMPs: one for each substation from Manitoba to Louisiana. Every day the grid challenges MISO to predict the future balance of energy supply and demand.
The future of electricity might literally be in your hands
When I returned to my car in that Eagan parking lot, I naturally picked up my phone. In the twenty-first century, it is hard to imagine life without one of these pocket supercomputers. And in the coming decades, your phone may come to resemble the control room in miniature.
Some of you may be wholly familiar with this idea—the Smart Grid. Your phone controls your thermostat, or your lights, or the output of your rooftop solar panels. The impulse to better tune your own section of the grid isn’t particularly new, but, as in the past, new technology has brought change to our door.
As we decarbonize the grid to minimize the impacts of climate change (and to make electricity cheaper), intermittent sources like wind and solar will require the grid to become more responsive, and MISO and others to become more sophisticated.
Your electricity shouldn’t be a mystery; especially if you want to DIY. It doesn’t have to be. Minnesota PUC hearings are open to public comment—to yours, even. Perhaps we’ll see you there.