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Toasters, teapots, televisions. Doorbells, lightbulbs, dishwashers. Wiis, Ipods, cell phones. What do these triads have in common? Electricity. None would work without electricity.

Think about your daily life. Consider the first four hours of a typical day: wake up, eat breakfast, shower… Which of these activities require electricity? Does an alarm clock wake you? Does your breakfast food require refrigeration or heat? Do you take warm showers? Consider which of your daily activities rely on electricity. It is probably a pretty long list.

Our lives rely on electricity. A black-out dramatically demonstrates this. What do you do without lights, computer, and television? What do you do when your cell-phone, Ipad, or Ipod have no service or cannot be recharged?

Electricity service nationwide was disrupted last week as blistering heat swept the country. As customers cranked up their air-conditioners, the country’s electric grid groaned under the demand, and then failed. Millions of people were left to sweat in the triple-digit, record-shattering temperatures. By July 2, the governors of Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland had declared state of emergencies in response to the ‘natural disaster.’

The Technology Behind the Flip of a Switch—
The heat of summer will continue for weeks. Most of us will rely on electricity—the arctic cool of air-conditioning, the breeze of a fan—to make these weeks bearable and we will give little thought to the electrical grid that makes our sweat-free comfort possible. So this week we turn a grateful eye to the electrical grid—what it is, how it operates, and the changes being made to improve its efficiency.


The electric grid is a superhighway of sorts, a web of electric lines, transformers, and power plants that extends across the United States. NPR shares a visual of the grid. How is the United States divided? Where are there the most lines? Where are the newest? Where are the fewest lines? How do you explain these observations?

Yul Kwon, host of PBS’ America Revealed, notes that Americans are the greatest users of energy on Earth. His show, America Revealed: Electric Nation, unveils the intricacies of our electrical system. Watch from 4:09 to 11:09 to learn about how the grid began, what triggered the largest cascading blackout, and for a glimpse into how the lines are maintained. Fast forward to 17:15 and watch to 26:51 as Kwon investigates the fuels that power electricity plants: coal, nuclear power, and natural gas. Join the coal as it journeys from a Wyoming mine to power plants across the country. Learn about the challenges of “safe” nuclear power and follow the flow of natural gas.

Revisit the NPR map to view the location and type of power plants across the United States. Use the menu along the left margin to filter for type of power. Scroll over the dots to read pop-up boxes with detailed information about each plant. What observations do you have about the power plants?

Coal, natural gas, nuclear power. They are the fuels that for generations have powered our grid. However, innovative thinkers have long suggested we incorporate renewable energy into our fuel sources. Continue watching excerpts from Electric Nation. Hear Thomas Edison’s view about how to fuel the electric grid then learn about renewable wind power (34:27 to 37:05). Learn more about wind power and how state regulations are changing; watch from 38:38 to 42:07.

Return to the NPR electric grid map, this time to examine the sources of power. Kwon shared that California law requires that it move toward renewable energy. Scroll over California and assess how it is doing. Think back to Electric Nation; what do you predict is the major power source for Wyoming? Scroll over the state to check your answer. Find your home state; what are the primary sources of power? Which state generates the most wind power? (Hint: head north to the home of 10,000 lakes.) Travel around the country. What most surprises you about the sources of our power or the electrical grid?

In what type of geography would you expect to find wind turbines? Examine 070812-5 the wind power map to check your prediction; where is wind speed highest? Where are the proposed lines? How do you explain this, or what questions do you have? Finally, view the solar map. What part of the country offers the most capacity for solar power? Where are the most solar power lines?

The Smart Grid—

070812-1 Rewewable energy sources are not the only way of improving the grid. Join Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of NOVA’s ScienceNow, for an exploration of The Next Big Thing: the smart grid, how new technology will improve the grid. In that video clip, energy expert Vijay Vaitheeswaran calls our energy grid “dumb.” Read an interview with Vijay Vaitheeswaran about why the current grid is “dumb” and the four reasons it is important to make it smarter.

Revisit Yul Kwon’s show to view how an avocado packaging plant has upgraded their energy usage. Visit the Get Involved tab and take a survey to compare yourself to others.

The challenges to creating a smart grid are abundant: acquiring land, 070812-6 building new lines, incorporating new power sources into current systems, installing smart household meters, and altering consumer habits. What will the smart grid mean to the average family? NPR talks with one Pennsylvania family with a smart meter and investigates the future of smart technology on energy usage.