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Portrait of a Mature Grid Operator

With electricity deregulation, independent authorities have been established to manage regional power systems. But not all are created equal

2 min read

Starting in the 1990s, as electric power systems have been reorganized in the United States to allow for wholesale trading by producers and distributors of electricity, independent authorities called Independent System Operators (ISOs) have been established to manage grids. Today, several major blackouts later, it seems apparent that experience counts for something. The devastating California electricity crisis of 2000�01—which bankrupted huge utilities in a matter of weeks, cost the state’s governor his job, and led to the collapse of Enron—occurred when California’s new ISO was just getting on its feet. In 2003, at a time when a Midwest ISO was just setting up shop in Indiana and didn’t yet have its act together, a devastating outage started in its poorly regulated operating area and ended up blacking out almost the entire Northeast and Midwest of the United States, plus two Canadian provinces.

Tellingly, the 2003 blackout was largely contained by two ISOs that descended from power pools of long-standing and high repute. PJM (the Pennsylvania�New Jersey�Maryland Interconnection) lost only 4500 megawatts of the 61 200-MW generating capacity that was active at the time the blackout occurred. Managers and engineers at ISO New England, headquartered in Holyoke, Mass., breathed sighs of relief when the cascading outage stopped at the region’s New York state borders.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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