But the grid is also built on an antiquated tangle of market rules, operational formulas and business models. It makes for a formidable riddle.
Planners are struggling to plot where and when to deploy solar panels, wind turbines and hydrogen fuel cells without knowing whether regulators will approve the transmission lines to support them.
"One of the biggest challenges is you can't create a market for these resources without solving the demands of moving electricity from one physical place to another," said Neil Fromer, executive director of Caltech's Resnick Sustainability Institute. "But you can't solve that problem until you understand what the market structure looks like."
Back in Colorado, Peregrine is furiously working to map out grid scenarios involving wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy. Sharing space with Peregrine at the Energy Systems Integration Facility is a "visualization room" with a 16-foot screen that creates 3-D images of how different wind patterns interact with turbines, or how molecules interact inside a solar cell.
Federal regulators see an expanded role for themselves as the best hope for powering the nation with as much as 80% renewable energy within the next 35 or so years. Maintaining stability will hinge increasingly on interstate cooperation, they say.
But state regulators are reluctant to cede authority. That's particularly true in California, where bitterness over the energy crisis of more than a decade ago remains intense and makes officials reluctant to cede an inch of jurisdiction to Washington.
Regardless of who wins that power struggle, some of those involved in the day-to-day business of keeping the lights on in California say the limitations of the grid will undermine efforts by activists to move more quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
At the Independent Energy Producers Assn. in Sacramento, which represents owners of renewable and gas power plants, Executive Director Jan Smutny-Jones says proposals by academics and others to move California to as much as 80% renewable energy within the next two decades are bumping up against the challenges of avoiding another San Diego-type blackout.
"Some day that may be the way the world is going to work," he said. "But in the next five or six years, it is not."