Electricity and Power Infrastructure and Systems


Electricity and Power Infrastructure and Systems are the combination of human and physical resources used to create, transmit, transform and distribute electrical power in places around the world. While the specifics of each regional power grid are different, the same general principles apply to all of these critical infrastructure and systems worldwide.

These systems can be generally broken down into production, transmission and distribution subsystems, each of which have different needs and requirements. The production subsystem is the network of power generation facilities that produce the actual power. Once it is produced, electricity is transmitted along high-voltage transmission lines which are optimized for transmitting power over long distances. As it approaches its final destination, the electricity moves through a transformer where it is reduced to a safer voltage to be distributed to its final destination. All of this happens in the blink of an eye, with power being consumed almost as soon as it is produced. While storage technology continues to improve, current high capacity options involve some level of unacceptable loss in the storage and retrieval of electricity.

In North America, the electricity and power infrastructure is integrated between Canada, the United States and Mexico. The three countries share electricity through dozens of major power transmission lines that cross international borders. This was most immediately obvious on August 14, 2003, when a local electricity company in Ohio was unable to balance the load when a wire shorted out after coming into contact with foliage. This resulted in a cascading power failure that eventually affected 55 million people in the northeastern United States and the province of Ontario.

More recently, transmission lines belonging to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) have been found to be the cause of major wildfires in California, the largest of which was the Camp Fire in 2018. In order to prevent wildfires, electrical companies across North America have been instituting emergency power shut-offs, which pose significant problems for people with disabilities and functional needs. While many have a limited amount of battery back-up, the emergency power shut-offs can last days or weeks, leaving people who rely on electricity to power life-saving equipment without an essential need.

Around the world, electricity is produced through a variety of sources, though the majority comes from high-carbon sources like coal, crude oil and natural gas. In developed countries, the systems and infrastructure look very similar to the North American system; in still-developing countries as well as remote and rural areas of developed countries, the electricity system and infrastructure is often hyper-local, with communities receiving power from a local generator. While the percentage of electricity produced through renewable sources around the world continues to grow, environmental concerns and cost limitations continue to hold back the adoption of renewable power as a stable source of electricity. There are two major environmental concerns: the impact of solar farms on arable agricultural lands and the impact that hydro-electric dams have on natural waterways and native animals.

Key Facts

  • In 2018, the world consumed 157,000 Terawatt hours (TWh), with 135,000 TWh coming from non-renewable sources such as diesel, coal and natural gas and the remainder coming from traditional biofuels and renewable sources. One Terawatt is equal to one billion kilowatts. Almost 70,000 TWh, or 44 percent of that production was in the Asia Pacific region alone.
  • About 940 million people, or 13 percent of the world, do not have access to electricity as of 2016, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy by 2030 is part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The World Bank identifies universal access to energy as being key to economic development and technological advances as being an important part of reaching universal access.
  • Renewable energy, such as solar and wind, is intermittent and requires effective storage solutions if it is to make up more of the global mix of electricity. Increasing renewable energy is key to cutting carbon emissions and reducing the impact of climate change, so decreasing the cost of electricity storage is key to helping solve the climate emergency. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) says “In 2017, the United States generated 4 billion megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity, but only had 431 MWh of electricity storage available.” Most of this storage is used to help balance the electrical load and smooth out unexpected demands until more generation capacity can be brought online.
  • Most electrical generation in developed countries is done through large centralized generation plants which require a large amount of transmission infrastructure to move the electricity from the centralized generators to the point of consumption. The adoption of distributed generation, producing smaller amounts of energy closer to the points of consumption could lead to significant improvements in the stability of the grid, along with energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions related to electricity production.

How to Help

  • Support projects that increase universal access to electricity. In still-developing areas in particular, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, this will provide new opportunities to build local economic and community resilience. Increasing access to electricity will allow people to develop local businesses, have better access information and resources, and ultimately help communities better prepare for emergencies and disasters.
  • Fund programs to diversify power sources. Funding for distributed generation programs for both large- and small-scale energy storage will help increase the efficiency, stability and resiliency of the electrical and power system and infrastructure.
  • Support electrical system research. Research into increasing the efficiency of all aspects of the electrical system and infrastructure will reduce the overall demand for electricity and allow for greater flexibility and stability in the system.
  • Support vulnerable populations. Private philanthropy can support vulnerable populations in ways that government and other funders cannot. Funding for local backup generation ensures people with disabilities and functional needs and other vulnerable populations have life-saving access to electricity during emergencies and disasters.

What Funders Are Doing

  • The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) provided four grants to improve electricity and power infrastructure as part of our 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Recovery Fund:
    • The Puerto Rico Conservation Trust was awarded $35,000 to outfit one community center with solar panels for renewable energy and water catchment and filtration systems by June 2019. Key community members were trained to ensure the installed equipment receives the required maintenance. The overarching goal of this work is to have sustainable community centers that serve as symbols of self-sufficiency, hope and innovation.
    • Barefoot College was awarded $250,000 to provide communities with stable and sustainable electricity so they can manage self-sufficiently. This effort will benefit the Fund focus areas related to food security and health and mental health resources with agricultural improvements, internet access and increased communication with the outside world.
    • The Solar Foundation received $500,000 for the Rio Piedras Market Solar Jobs Training Project. Goals of this effort are three-fold: 1) increase food and energy security for the Plaza del Mercado in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan; 2) build workforce capacity for the local solar industry; and 3) measure improvements to the livelihoods and economic recovery of project beneficiaries.
    • Croix Foundation for Community Development received $50,000 to support their Community Solar Project in partnership with the Virgin Islands Workforce Investment Board, Sustainable Systems International and Lion’s Den Solar. The project will train 40 community members on fiber optics and solar installation through the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
  • The Power Finance Corporation Limited Contributions Program of New Delhi donated $140,750 to provide solar-powered LED lights to the colony that was constructed for flood victims of Rajoli Village of Wadepally Mandal in 2017.
  • The National Lottery Community Fund donated $13,810 to the Dunamore Community Association to purchase a generator and other emergency resources in the Carntogher and Maghera area of Northern Ireland in 2016.
  • The KMR Group Foundation donated $42,500 to Robust Power to supply solar panels to areas of Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria in 2018.
  • The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee granted $4,000 in 2015 to provide electric and natural gas assistance to 30 households during periods of extreme heat or cold through Needlink Nashville.

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(Photo: Burnout operations along the high power lines east of Lake Mary Road southeast of Mormon Lake. Fires such as this help clean and remove down and dead forest fuels, increasing the safety for communities and the lessening the threat of severe wildfires in the area. Source: Liza Simmons, Public Information Officer, USFS)