The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future

The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future
By Gretchen Bakke
Bloomsbury, New York, 2016

A PhD in cultural anthropology might seem like an odd background for someone writing a book about our national electricity grid. But Gretchen Bakke sees the grid as more than just generating plants, transmission wires, substations, poles, meters, outlets and cords. She’s an assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University in Montreal. In her view the grid also includes business models, government regulations, energy politics and the public’s changing desires and expectations – all of which really are cultural. And of course we can’t forget that the entire grid is embedded in the natural environment.

In her book The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future, Bakke examines the grid from three different perspectives.

clip_image002First, there’s the physical grid. Bakke looks at the technology, how it works or doesn’t, why it’s increasingly brittle and unreliable, and the challenges we face in modernizing the grid, especially when it comes to integrating renewable energy sources.

The second major theme of the book is the business of running the grid. Who makes money from the grid and how? How are the business models changing? How did the utilities end up as regulated monopolies, and what are the consequences of changes to the legal environment in which they operate?

Thirdly, the book considers the social and political forces acting on the grid. What do we as consumers and voters want from the grid? How are those desires changing over time? How are those changes reflected in our patterns of electricity consumption and production?

From those three angles The Grid covers four main topics, in rough chronological order:

  • How did the grid originate?
  • How did it evolve into the grid we have today?
  • What’s wrong with today’s grid, and why is it so difficult to change?
  • What should the grid look like in future?

Origins of the Grid

We’ve known how to produce electricity for a long time. Alessandro Volta created the first prototype chemical battery in 1800 and Michael Faraday showed how to generate electricity from electromagnetic coils in the 1870’s. But it wasn’t until the development of the incandescent filament lightbulb by Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan in 1879 that there was a clear use for electricity. At first electric lighting was only available to offices, factories, and wealthy homeowners who could afford to install their own generators. Lighting quickly became the “killer app” for electricity, driving the creation of the earliest, small-scale grids.

Two developments essentially locked in the structure of the grid we have today.

  • In 1896 the first hydroelectric generating plant came on-line at Niagara Falls. This established the physical and technical template for the grid: large-scale, centralized power generation; alternating current; high voltage transmission lines; step-down transformers for distribution to local businesses and consumers.
  • In 1892, Samuel Insull, formerly Thomas Edison’s personal secretary, took over management of the Chicago-area Edison franchise. Over the next few decades Insull set the business model for the grid: universally available low-cost power, a mix of “loads” that consume power at all hours of day and night, variable pricing to encourage “off-peak” usage, and most importantly a local monopoly on power generation.

As the grid developed and expanded, lighting became more widely available at prices most people could afford. Soon along came new-fangled appliances like stoves and refrigerators that both drove the demand for electricity and helped usher in our modern lifestyle. The grid democratized the consumption of electricity by making consistent, reliable power available to everyone at reasonable cost.

Evolution of the Grid

For about seventy years, the grid developed and spread from urban centers to the most sparsely populated rural areas. At the same time, the utility companies that owned and ran the grid evolved into vertically integrated, regulated monopolies. They controlled electricity generation, transmission and distribution, and they metered and charged for consumption. They made handsome if regulated profits from it all.  As Bakke notes, it was a model that encouraged complacency and provided zero incentive for innovation.

Then in 1973 the first Arab oil embargo hit, sending the US into a deep recession. For the first time energy conservation, rather than ever-increasing consumption, became important for people and politicians. Today, it’s pretty much a moral imperative.

Since then, legislative changes have stripped utilities of most of their monopoly power.

Section 201 of the 1978 Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) required utilities to purchase power at wholesale rates from small non-utility sources. The original purpose of this law was to provide incentives for cogeneration – when a factory uses waste heat, for example, to generate its own electricity – but it spurred both development and competition in electrical generating technology. It also exposed the utilities to decentralized and variable power sources for the first time.

The real legislative earthquake came with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 which required utilities to separate electricity generation from distribution. It opened up the wholesale electricity markets to full-blown competition. Some states even required utilities to divest their generation capacity.

Utilities now earn their money from transmitting, distributing and metering electricity, not from generation. On the other hand, there is really no one “in charge” of the grid anymore. There’s no single entity responsible for the end-to-end delivery of electricity from generation all the way to consumption. And that means no one is accountable for it either.

Challenges Facing the Grid

The grid is ageing, inefficient and poorly maintained. As a result it’s becoming less and less reliable.

“… significant power outages are climbing year by year, from 15 in 2001, to 78 in 2007 to 307 in 2011. America has the highest number of outage minutes of any developed nation …” [p. xiv]

What’s the biggest threat to the security and reliability of our nation’s power grid? Nope, it’s not terrorists, domestic or foreign, and it’s not cyberattacks from maleficent state actors or criminal gangs. No, it’s foliage. Trees and branches falling on or getting tangled in power lines are the greatest single cause of power outages in the country. That’s in large part because utilities have been cutting back their tree pruning budgets for years. The number two threat? Squirrels.

Declining availability and reliability of power is one reason why more and more people and organizations are starting to generate their own. Of course, environmental concerns, the desire for cleaner, greener power, is another important driver. This poses additional problems for utilities. First it deprives them of revenue. If people generate their own power, how do the utilities make money to maintain all that expensive infrastructure? This is known as the “utility death spiral.”

It also makes running the grid more difficult. The grid was inherently designed for centralized distribution of steady amounts of electricity, Bakke points out. It’s not designed to handle fluctuating, intermittent, and distributed power sources.

Solar power, for example, isn’t available in the evenings when utilities face peak demand from families cooking dinner, watching television and doing laundry. In the daytime, when those solar panels are busily pumping electricity back into the grid, people are at work or school and residential demand is at its lowest. The result is the so-called “duck curve” showing the increasing imbalance between electricity supply and demand caused by renewable power.

All these problems would be far easier to deal with, but for one fundamental problem: electricity can’t be stored. It’s not like water or gas or oil. It must be used as soon as it is produced, virtually the instant it is produced. From the earliest days of the grid, balancing electricity supply with demand has been critical.

When there’s not enough electricity in the grid, things start shutting down or going dark. When there’s too much electricity, well things start burning or melting.

“Toasters don’t explode, wires function well, lightbulbs go on when the wall switch is flipped, all because the grid is kept in balance: there is enough electricity available to run our machines, but there is not so much that it rips through and destroys them.” [p.8]

But what about batteries, don’t they store electricity? Actually, they store energy, converted from electricity into chemical form. Similarly pumped hydroelectric storage stores surplus water in reservoirs for later use. There’s lots of investment and research going on right now into developing new energy storage technologies, including my whimsical favorite, rocks on trains. (Author and futurist Ramez Naam has a good summary in this article,) But we’re not there yet, especially not at grid scale.

Future of the Grid

So what could the grid look like in future? How should it look? Bakke points to two possible futures which perhaps sit at opposite ends of a continuum.

The first possibility is that we’ll continue with the predominantly centralized model of electricity production and distribution we have today. Utilities will incorporate renewable energy into their generating capacity, something we’re already seeing with the development of utility-scale wind and solar farms. Research and development will eventually lead to the availability of large-scale energy storage which the utilities will adopt to help them deal with the vagaries of renewable power.

But Bakke argues with considerable eloquence for a different approach, one that is radically decentralized and inclusive.

Today, people want cleaner, greener power. They want more reliable power. And they want cheaper power. People also want more direct, or at least more local control over the production and distribution of electricity. Affordable solar power, lithium-ion batteries like the Tesla Powerwall, and local area microgrids are making this possible. If the grid democratized electricity consumption in the late 1800’s then these new technologies are democratizing electricity production, storage and distribution today.

But accomplishing this requires more than just new technology. It requires a legal and regulatory environment that encourages or at least doesn’t block adoption of these new solutions.

“This potential for a better, more robust, more secure grid grounded in technologies we both use and like is made possible by letting people find ways to make and store electricity at the smallest scale without excluding them, structurally or legally from our common system” [p. 271]

Unsolicited Feedback

The Grid isn’t without its flaws. If you’re looking for a deeply scientific or technical understanding of the grid you’ll probably be disappointed by this book. That’s not Bakke’s background and more importantly she’s clearly interested in the larger set of forces acting on the grid.

Also the narrative does jump around a bit and there’s repetition of some key points. It’s as if the complexity and interconnectedness of the gird simply can’t be explained through a linear medium like text.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book. Like most people, I suppose I take electricity for granted … until it’s not there. I now have a much better appreciation for what it takes to keep the lights on. The Grid is fascinating and sometimes quite alarming. Gretchen Bakke presents the grid as a great sprawling machine of unimaginable power that’s just a split second away from blasting apart the bonds holding it in check and yet at the same time is perpetually on the verge of total collapse. The overlapping technical, financial and social perspectives that she brings to the book provide an important picture of the incredible complexities of the grid, the daunting challenges we face in upgrading it, and the opportunities within our grasp to develop something better.

Update (Feb. 13, 2022): A terrific podcast called The Big Switch explores the grid and the critical role it plays in moving to a net zero carbon economy. My review is here.

Related Links

NPR Interview with Gretchen Bakke:

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2 Responses to The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future

  1. Harry Katz says:

    Bill Gates gives The Grid an honorable mention in his list of favorite books of 2016.


  2. Pingback: The Big Switch | Unsolicited Feedback

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