What Is an Electric Distribution Network?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An electric distribution network is a collective of electrical lines, generation facilities, and substations that move electric power from the point of generation to end consumers. Utilities administer such networks, interacting with each other to meet the power needs of their customers. National governments also typically monitor activities on the network because it is a matter of national security interest, as many functions are dependent on reliable and consistent electrical power. In emergencies, including severe weather or national crises, this network can be put under high strain.

Residential electric meter.
Residential electric meter.

The start of the electric distribution network is an energy generation facility that may use anything from coal to wind to generate electricity, distributing it across long distance transmission lines. These heavy-duty electric lines are designed to carry a very high load to reach substations, which process the power. Each substation sends out electricity through local power lines to reach utility customers like homes and businesses.

Electricity is delivered via a power grid.
Electricity is delivered via a power grid.

Within a given region, a particular utility usually has a monopoly on the electric distribution network because it installs all the infrastructure and maintains it. Consumers may be able to pay for power from different sources, asking for wind or solar rather than coal power, for example, although it is not possible to actually control the source of power delivered to the individual customer. Customers effectively vote with their wallets to ask the utility to produce more power from renewable sources under such schemes. Another utility may also be able to lease the lines by agreement, providing power service to customers through the original utility's lines.

Administering an electric distribution network and connecting it to a national grid is a complex process. Utilities must constantly maintain various elements of the system and need to be able to anticipate and meet power demands. In heat waves, poor weather, and other conditions, there may be high demand on the grid. If the infrastructure is not up to the task, rolling blackouts and other measures may need to occur to keep the electric distribution network functional.

Utilities may also work with national governments on the management of the grid. In some cases they can be eligible for government assistance, and the government can also offer subsidies for activities like consumer installation of solar panels. These solar panels can feed power into the meter for distribution, allowing consumers to share excess power and receive payments from the utility company for doing so. Government regulatory agencies monitor pricing practices and other activities and may periodically issue reports on the state of the electric distribution network and the electric utility industry for the benefit of policymakers and the public.

The government sometimes offers subsidies for activities like consumer installation of solar panels.
The government sometimes offers subsidies for activities like consumer installation of solar panels.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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