The North American Electrical Generation, Transmission and Distribution Networks


Energy production and transmission has always been a goal of civilizations. North America and the big US cities like Chicago presents an ideal investigation into the intricacies of electrical production and distribution. Discussing the historical development of the electrical industry, electrical generation conducted in North America, electrical transmission within the continent, distribution of energy, conventional and alternative energy sources, and possible future requirements/developments all help with the understanding of a complicated and vital part of life and the economy.

Historical Development

Electricity in North America has been a relatively quick-paced evolving unit whereby trial and error advancements were made that has created a system that is more viable and dependable. A look into the early history of electrical development and the latest creations for electricity companies demonstrates how the system has been enhanced throughout the years. These enhancements have created the system that is in place currently and presents elements of prediction for the future.

Early Development

Many utility customers have only one provider to choose from, and often these customers have limited options outside of the market for power production and transmission. This aspect of electrical consumption and production seems a common trait during present times, but this was not always the norm. In the 1920s, during the infancy of electrical use, many companies competed with one another in the same city, which turned overhead streets into a mass of electrical lines that were so dense they sometimes blotted out sunlight. The reason for this is that each company provided their own delivery system through power lines for a particular batch of customers. The result was a single carrier using a single line among a multitude of competitors also using a single line. This, of course, has changed, but the change did not come overnight. 1932 saw the advent of consolidation of major electrical providers into eight major holding companies that provided the power for the United States in particular. Consolidation will sometimes create instances of too much power within a handful of companies. This is problematic because electrical power at this time in history is beginning to become a major component of life. Many people in North America are accustomed to electrical power of some degree. The Roosevelt administration oversaw the passage of the Federal Power Act and Public Utility Holding Company (PUHCA), which regulated by federal law the actions of the consolidated power suppliers. This limited the actions of the companies and virtually extinguished the manipulation the overcharging that the consolidated companies were doing.

Electrical Generation

The New Deal, Regulation, and Public Works

The New Deal created vast changes across the face of America as well as Canada. Canada adopted many of the same policies that were adopted under the Roosevelt administration because the Canadian government witnessed the ease of use and control that Roosevelt created through the Regulatory Compact that established investor owned utility companies. The New Deal also introduced new innovations that many in America had never contemplated. At this time in America, many rural cities had limited or no electrical power. Roosevelt thus adopted the use of large public utilities that could bring electricity to small towns as well as hydroelectric projects that produced an enormous amount of renewable energy for a large portion of the population. The natural progression of introducing many companies to settling with only a handful of companies also produced differences in regulation. Small numerous companies were competing, which means little regulation as to prices was needed. However, the Roosevelt administration noticed that one supplier was often the only presence in an area. This created a situation where a regional monopoly resulted. As a result, the government created municipal utilities, coops, federal utilities; along with investor own utilities. This provided more options in the marketplace and also created a regulatory body that could commit to keeping prices down relative to the economic conditions of production. Cooperation, public priorities, and subsidies stemmed from the government which ensured relative fairness and regulation of utilities for the general public.

More Modern Developments

The 1970s witnessed shortages in the ability to produce electricity due to the shortages of producing fuel such as natural gas. The government created the Power and Industrial Fuel Use Act in 1978, which limited a utility’s ability to use oil and gas to generate electricity to a certain amount. Once that amount was reached then the company could not use that source to conduct electricity. This allowed for more flexibility against supply shortages for the company, and allowed the public the benefit of having a readily available and confident supply of energy.

Electrical Generation

Generation of electricity is the most important element of the electrical network in North America. The ability to distribute the electricity and transmit the electricity is also important, but would not be of concern if there were no energy to transmit. Investigating electrical generation in North America demonstrates the types of electrical components are available, the levels of electricity created and other variations across the region.

Types of Electrical Generation

The United States and Canada have a variety of electricity generation options to choose from, but the majority of the region’s power resides within fossil fuels in some form or another. Of course other types of electricity are utilized, but these amounts are much less when compared. The first section of electricity generation comes from thermal and fossil fuel sources. The use of thermal and fossil fuel sources accounted for 2,789 terawatt hours (TWh). At first glance this may not seem like a lot, but when discussing consumption in North America as containing 4,138.7 TWh, then the number utilized for fossil fuel sources and thermal sources is more than half and a vast majority of the actual electricity generation sources. It should come as no surprise that much of the electricity generation in the North American region comes from such sources. Fossil fuels are in abundance across the world and are easy to procure and ship to different areas of the region. It appears that the main reasons for greater generation source used are abundance, ease of use, and shipping portability across the region. Another reason for the greater use of fossil fuel and thermal uses is the fact that many of the facilities in North America are already retrofitted to produce electricity through the consumption of fossil fuels. Turbines and stations have already been established throughout the years to provide the means for great electrical generation. This means that the region is utilizing the facilities that are present because of convenience as well as cost.

The next electricity generation source is nuclear power. Nuclear power is second in energy production at 790 TWh. This means that nuclear power provides a large amount of the electrical production of the United States in particular. The strange fact about nuclear power is the relatively low amount of nuclear facilities located in North America. Only 104 facilities exist in North America, but these facilities provide the second largest source of electrical power for the region. Two conclusions can be made from this fact. First, nuclear plants provide a large amount of electricity per facility as compared to other fossil fuel facilities. Second, nuclear power plants are not being built as of yet because the amounts and electrical production associated with them is relatively small. If nuclear plants were allowed to flourish more in the region then they would be built because of the apparent efficiency demonstrated by the electrical production per facility. The reason for the small amount of nuclear production facilities is due partly to politics. Residents of United States and Canada want nuclear power but they do not want the facility in their backyard and it seems as though politicians listen to their wishes. Also, the catastrophe that occurred at Three-Mile Island has created a scar on nuclear power that no amount of lobbying can truly overcome. However, despite all of the bad images nuclear power conjures up, the fact still remains that nuclear power accounts for the second greatest energy generation source for North America.

Another electricity generation source is found in hydropower. Hydropower accounts for 319 TWh of power for North America. The surprising fact about hydropower is the power production found in only a few actual facilities in North America. First, the major source for hydropower is found at Niagara Falls where the vast majority of hydropower is produced for America and Canada. Over half of the hydropower produced resides in Niagara Falls efforts. Niagara Falls is also the spot where the first major electrical power generation occurred with Westinghouse turbines. In essence, hydropower was the first real electricity generation source in North America. The oldest source only comprises the third largest source in present times. One would think that hydropower would comprise a larger share of electrical production, but this is not the case. The second largest production facility for hydropower is found in the Hoover Dam in Arizona. The Hoover Dam is much less than Niagara Falls, but the creation of the facility involved much more effort as compared to Niagara Falls because the Hoover Dam was a human manipulation of hydropower where Niagara Falls was just harnessing hydropower. In any event, hydropower is an excellent source of power generation and is important to the North American region.

A final electricity generation source is in the form of renewable resources. Hydropower is renewable, but comprises such a large amount of energy generation that it is within its own category. Renewable resources are wind, solar, geothermal, and landfill gas. Each of these sources is renewable because they can be assessed through means that are readily available and cost nothing to the producing agent. Wind can be harnessed, sunlight can be captured, heat can be transferred, and landfill gas can be harvested in order to produce electrical power. Renewable sources such as these make up 194 TWh of electrical generation and are among the smallest producers of electricity in North America. This is an unfortunate but understandable phenomenon. Renewable sources are fairly new technologies and have not been explored fully. The efficiency of the technologies is such that large scale facilities are needed before the economies of scale are such that electrical production on a grander scale is possible. Renewable resources are relatively pollution free and provide sources that will not need raw materials as compared to nuclear power and fossil fuel production.

It should come as no surprise that energy generation relies heavily on fossil fuels. The abundance of materials and established facilities makes the decision easy in the electricity production scheme for North America. Other sources are available and are gaining acceptance; however, more acceptance and technological advancements are needed before renewable resources are adopted further into the energy production option.

Electrical Transmission

In order to understand electricity production and consumption, it is vitally important to first understand how the transmission of electrical power from the source to the customer is conducted. Transmission of the power to areas that need the power is an important step in power production and consumption. Understandably, regulating the power and ensuring efficient transfer is a complicated undertaking.

Energy and Power

Transmission of electricity involves two important items: energy and power. One may think that energy and power is the same thing, but they would be incorrect in that assumption. Energy is the capacity to do work, which means that a power line fully charged with electricity may have 100kV of energy, which translates into that power line’s potential to perform. Power, on the other hand, is the rate at which work is performed through the transmission of energy. For instance, if it takes 100kV to power a factory, then the factory’s power quotient is 100kV. It takes 100kV for that factory to work and the energy provided has the capacity to conduct 100kV of power or maybe even more if the energy is not totally utilized by the factory.

Power Grid

North America contains power grids that regulate the flow of electricity specifically to different portions of the continent in order to provide the correct amount of power that would meet consumer demands. Companies would not want to generate power and send that power to a region that does not need as much power. In the same vein, it would be unwise to send less power to California as would be sent to Montana. Careful considerations such as this demonstrate the need for power grids that are well-regulated and portioned according to need. North America has two major power grids. The Western Interconnection and Eastern Interconnection provide power to a majority of the continent. Two minor power grids, the Alaskan Interconnection and Texas Interconnection provide power to the northern and southern portions of the continent. Each of these transmission distribution centers work in concert in order to provide the correct amount of electricity to the correct region of the continent.

Overhead Lines

The transmission of electricity mainly derives from overhead lines. The size of these lines is within the range of 2mm to 750mm in diameter and they are not insulated and generally made of aluminum. Transmission of electricity for these lines varies. Generally, the lines transmit 110 kV and above with lower voltages of 66kV for sub-transmission and 35kV for distribution. Each of these transmission lines work in tandem in order to deliver power to the consumer. The larger lines deliver the power across wide distances whereas the 66kV lines provide electricity to the substations and the 35kV lines provide electricity to the consumer directly. Problems arise with this type of transmission. First, the overhead lines utilize the air as insulation because it is cheaper to provide no insulation as opposed to insulating every single line length. Second, because the air is utilized as insulation, any disturbance in the air (wind, thunderstorms, etc.) can lead to power outages. This is precisely why the power may go out during times of extreme weather. Many think it resides in telephone poles actually falling during the storm, but it actually takes place when the weather disrupts the air insulating the wires to such a degree that power is interrupted.


Distribution of power relies heavily on government influence and money. Both must be present in order to effectively control the costs and deployment of electricity to customers. Also, some customer requires vastly more electricity as compared to smaller households. Key elements of distribution demonstrate how intricate the design actually is.

Tariffs and subsidies are a major portion of the distribution channels for North American electrical generation, transmission, and consumption. Tariffs are charged to consumers of electricity (varying vastly across states, provinces, and regions) as a means of upkeep of the network, power lines, and other elements of electrical transmission. Subsidies in the form of grants are also important to the development of new substations and power sources in order to feed the electrical appetites of new communities.

Future Predictions about Electrical Production, Distribution and Transmission

The electrical framework is in trouble for the future. Currently, the power grid utilized by much of the North American continent is antiquated and many of the repairs are conducted on an 'as-needed' basis because of the prohibitive cost associated with a total replacement of infrastructure. This could possibly mean that the future electrical consumption and implementation of eco-friendly technologies like geothermal HVAC cooling and heating systems will not be as efficient and reliable, yet at the same time the consumption levels will rise dramatically. This creates a problem for North America because reliance on electricity is great and will only get greater in the future. Heavy reliance on a system that is already old and breaking will cause more stress to exist. Solutions must be established in order to combat any problems that are foreseeable as well as unforeseeable. Governments as well as private industry must begin to conduct dual investigations into the electrical power grid. Also, different sources of electricity must be further investigated and researched in order to create greater technological advances. The viability of renewable resources and relative increased safety of nuclear power must be established because these two forms of electricity sources seem to have an importance for the region.


The history, sources, transmission, and distribution of electrical power in North America presents some stunning technological breakthroughs as well as some technological roadblocks. Government intervention in the arena is further needed to ensure regions of the continent are supplied with power at reasonable and affordable prices. Greater adherence to different sources of power generation is needed in order to fully integrate a system that breaks away from technological roadblocks.


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