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Line Losses A Different Kind Of Energy Efficiency

It’s a homeowner’s responsibility to make sure that he or she is using appliances that are energy efficient. Replacing a twenty-year-old refrigerator is likely to reduce your electricity bill because a new ENERGY STAR-rated icebox has been designed to do more while using less of the juice. Energy efficiency, however, is not just a concern for the little guy. Utility companies must worry about “line losses,” the electricity that is lost as a result of the inherent inefficiency of the generation and transmission system. In places like Texas and New York, however, engineers are thinking of ways to prevent this waste. Best of all, the savings will be passed on to you, the consumer.

What causes this loss of energy in the first place? There are many reasons, including the flaws in electrical cables and the natural tendency toward entropy. (That’s the principle that says that systems tend to become more disordered over time.) Jim Landers, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, explains that small amounts of electricity turn into heat as it runs through a conductor. This is one of the reasons that power adaptors can feel warm to the touch when you try to unplug them. This unwanted heat isn’t such a big deal for appliances with short cables. When you think of power transmission cables and the hundreds of miles they can traverse, you can understand why line losses are such a big concern.

In Texas, line loss results in the waste of 6.5% of all the Texas electricity generated in the Lone Star State. While that might not sound like very much, it starts to add up when you think of it in terms of your pocketbook. For every one hundred dollars you pay for Texas electricity, inefficiencies account for $6.50. One way to reduce that amount is to replace old, lower capacity transmission cables with more advanced lines that can handle the kind of high voltages that keep the lights on in modern cities. Landers note that there are plans in place to connect the wind farms of West Texas to the rest of the state via 345-kilovolt lines that boast only 4% inefficiency.

Much like Texans, New Yorkers know what it’s like to need a vast supply of reliable New York electricity. To reduce the effect of line losses, engineers have developed synchrophasors. According to the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative (NASPI), computers can measure voltage running through a line at very high speed. With this detailed information about the flow of energy, utilities can better manipulate the grid to reduce the stress on the system and eliminate some of that waste. For example, if a power plant malfunctions, thereby causing the voltage in the system to fluctuate, the use of synchrophasors allows authorities to quickly address the situation before it causes increased waste. (Or worse, an interruption in supply.)

Matthew L. Wald, a writer for the New York Times, sees the benefits of synchrophasors, reminding readers that current monitoring devices only provide measurements every two to four seconds. The kind of synchrophasors that are being installed in New York and in the Midwest are able to provide feedback thirty times a second, allowing computers to regulate energy flow more fortuitously.

The devices themselves aren’t too expensive: approximately two to three thousand dollars for each synchrophasor. The real cost is derived from the computer and networking system that allows it to interact with the energy grid. Some of this money comes from the Energy Department, but even if residents end up paying to equip the grid with this technology, it’s the kind of wise long-term strategy that will result in long-term savings.

While it certainly will not be cheap to invest so much to establish a more efficient electric grid, it’s also a vital part of a greener future. Wind farms and solar facilities are (just like old-fashioned natural gas and coal power generation plants) often located far away from densely populated areas. As a result, utilities must run miles and miles of cable, resulting in greater line loss. If alternative energies can be more easily worked into the grid, we’ll all save money and enjoy a healthier environment. So the next time you read about improvements being made by state or local electric utilities, remember that something as simple as the cable strung between your home and the power plant can have a big effect on your monthly bill.