The electrical distribution system is the beating heart that powers everything you rely on. It runs the elevators. It fuels mechanical systems. It keeps the lights on, and the computers powered up. But what happens when this system gets older? How does it start to impact on the end user - and what happens if you drag your heels on vital upgrades?
The Evolution of the Electrical Distribution System
Electrical systems have come a long way since 1882, when Thomas Edison designed the first DC iteration: the world’s first power plant at Pearl Street Station, Manhattan. This was made up of a steam-powered generator, cable, fuse, meter, and incandescent lamps. This rudimentary design rapidly gained popularity, especially after the invention of motors a few years later.
Almost as quickly, though, the problems with DC power became clear: in particular, the fact that you couldn’t distribute power far from the generator.
Enter Nikola Tesla, a Serbian American inventor and engineer, who pioneered much of the work in electricity and power generation. He came to Edison with ideas for an inspired alternative: AC motors and generators that worked at higher voltages, but would be much cheaper and more efficient than DC dynamos. Edison hired him, but shut down the AC idea, saying it would be too dangerous.
The pair fell out over the rift, with Tesla going his own way to develop his ideas and striking a licensing deal with railway magnate George Westinghouse. This led to the famous “current war” between the two geniuses, as each sought to convince the public that their approach was the best. Edison famously ran gory public experiments in which animals were electrocuted with AC currents, to frighten people into choosing his less powerful DC systems!
Tesla’s polyphase system used a transformer to accommodate the high voltages needed to carry power further from its source, increasing its distribution potential substantially. Despite the campaign against him, the benefits were clear. By the beginning of the 20th Century, AC generators were the clear favorite - simpler, cheaper and able to transform voltage levels for easier transmission and generation. The next debate came over frequency, with the US favoring 60 Hz, whilst the majority of other countries settled on 50 Hz.
Since the 1950s, however, there’s been a growing interest in HVDC (High Voltage DC) systems, which allow large blocks of power to be transmitted over very wide distances and provide a competitive alternative to AC. With the cost of converting these systems falling all the time, more and more utilities companies are making the switch.
So that’s the big picture of electricity evolution. Meanwhile, at the individual building level, electrical distribution has been steadily changing and improving, too.
How Is the Electrical Distribution System Set Up?
For North America, the electrical grid is divided into multiple synchronous grids. The Eastern Interconnection and Western Interconnection make up the 2 major regions, followed by 3 other regions which are the Texas Interconnection, Alaska Interconnection, and Quebec Interconnection. Each region operates and delivers power at a nominal frequency of 60 Hz. Within the continental US, the electrical grid consists of over 185,000 miles of lines operated by around 500 companies.
Today’s nationwide electricity distribution system serves to decrease the voltage coming out of high-power transmission lines in order to deliver electricity to homes and businesses. This voltage depends on the size of the building; very large buildings buy up higher voltages because it’s cheaper and then invest in robust step-down transformers to reduce the voltage to a usable level.
Electricity is then distributed safely and securely to different electrical closets around a building via a switchgear. They do this by identifying and clearing all different types of faults and connection failures, managing the carriage of loads and overloads during maintenance and service, and segmenting the medium voltage system to keep circuit outages under control during electrical work.
Each closet has another transformer, which brings the voltage to the right level for the branch distribution panels, which in turn feed a particular branch circuit for that part of the building (controlling lights, specific equipment, particular rooms, etc.)
Like the National Grid, electrical distribution equipment for buildings has steadily improved over time. Much of this has been to do with safety, as regulators and construction companies introduce better, stronger practices to safeguard their teams and keep their projects running successfully (you can read more about that here)
Efficiency is another major driver, with construction teams paying close attention to ways of setting up distribution to be both energy efficient and achievable with tighter budgets. One important development here is the increasing use of BIM technology, which allows you to build, inspect and analyze 3D models of buildings before they are constructed, checking whether all elements (including electrical distribution) will be set up in the most logical, streamlined way possible before construction begins.
What Happens When Electrical Systems Age?
As we’ve seen, the nationwide electrical distribution system in the U.S. traces all the way back to the late 19th Century. While impressive, what you might not realize is that, by technology standards, many parts of the grid are ancient! The U.S. Department of Energy reports that 75% of power transformers and 70% of transmission lines are more than 25 years old, while 60% of circuit breakers are over 30.
Things fall apart as they get older, and power plants, transmission lines, transformers and poles are certainly no exception. Machinery gets tired and breaks down. Lines and parts need replacing. Animals chew at exposed wiring. External fixtures get weather-beaten.
The good news is that today’s materials are much more advanced, making it easier to bring in power from new sources and to control frequencies and voltage during system emergencies. They’re also much better able to withstand extreme weather events.
The bad news is that keeping on top of maintenance, let alone much needed upgrades, is a never-ending task - and one that’s very difficult to manage without disruptive power outages. What’s more, it’s very expensive. Some estimates put the price of upgrading the electricity grid at nearly $5 trillion!
How Does This Affect Me?
With electricity companies now competing with other small-scale producers for profits, it’s no wonder they’re dragging their heels on making such huge investments. The danger, though, is that an aging electrical distribution system is an unreliable distribution system, prone to unexpected breakdowns.
This makes it vital that you have an excellent contingency plan in place, just in case anything goes wrong - or to weather you through any scheduled downtime for grid upgrades and maintenance.
With so many moving parts to worry about, we can see this in electrical distribution systems at the building level, too.
Over time, constant exposure to heat wears down insulation. The resin in capacitors and the fluid in transformers degrade. As internal mechanisms and lubrication inside circuit breakers ages, clearing times slow down. Loose connections and friction can cause overheating, reducing your equipment’s lifetime and potentially causing expensive downtime.
Simply put, your aging electrical components and equipment no longer perform at their best. It’s inefficient, prone to breakdowns, even dangerous.
What Can I Do About It?
It’s important to diagnose potential issues before they cause an emergency. Conduct OSHA-compliant risk assessments to identify improvements that could make your system safer and more reliable. Conduct regular maintenance. Assess whether your equipment is still suitable for the task. Keep documentation like plans and single-line drawings of your electrical system to hand so that you can systematically inspect every element. Make use of intelligent power monitoring and control systems to spot problems emerging on the horizon.
Finally, where possible, conduct cost-benefit analyses of paying for complete upgrades vs taking out long-term rentals of certain units in your electrical distribution system, such as generators.
The national crisis of aging electrical distribution equipment has taught us important lessons about keeping systems up to scratch, but it’s also shown us how expensive a complete overhaul of legacy systems can be, especially when costs spiral, or factors change beyond your control.
After all, this is a sector that’s always evolving. Having the flexibility to ensure you can always access the latest, most efficient equipment without the capital outlay is a great way to protect yourself against whatever the future brings.