Biography of a Technology: North America's Power Grid Through the Twentieth Century
Cohn, Julie A.
MetadataShow full item record
North Americans are among the world’s most intense consumers of electricity. The vast majority in the United States and Canada access power from a network of transmission lines that stretch from the East Coast to the West Coast and from Canada to the Mexican Baja. This network, known as the largest interconnected machine in the world, evolved during the first two thirds of the twentieth century. With the very first link-ups occurring at the end of the 1890s, a wide variety of public and private utilities extended power lines to reach markets, access and manage energy resources, balance loads, realize economies of scale, provide backup power, and achieve economic stability. In 1967, utility managers and the Bureau of Reclamation connected the expansive eastern and western power pools to create the North American grid. Unlike other power grids around the world, built by single, centrally controlled entitities, this large technological system emerged as the result of multiple decisions across eighty-five years of development, and negotiations for control at the economic, political, and technological levels. This dissertation describes the process of building the North American grid and the paradoxes the resulting system represents. While the grid functions as a single machine moving electricity across the continent, it is owned by many independent entities. Smooth operations suggest that the grid is a unified system; however, it operates under shared management and divided authority. In addition, although a single power network seems the logical outcome of electrification, in fact it was assembled through aggregation, not planning. Interconnections intentionally increase the robustness of individual sub-networks, yet the system itself is fragile, as demonstrated by major cascading power outages. Finally, the transmission network facilitates increased use of energy resources and consumption of power, but at certain points in the past, it also served as a technology of conservation. While this project explores the history of how and why North America has a huge interconnected power system, it also offers insights into the challenges the grid poses for our energy future.