The Big Switch

I’m only halfway through the book I’m reading, so this week I’m writing about a podcast instead.

The Big Switch is a terrific podcast about how we switch to a net zero carbon economy to help slow down climate change. It’s hosted by Dr. Melissa C. Lott, Senior Research Scholar and Director of Research at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

The Big Switch podcast logo showing an electrical cord plugging into planet Earth.

The Big Switch
Hosted by Dr. Melissa C. Lott
Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University

First, what is “net zero”?

Net zero means that the amount of greenhouse gasses (GHG) we release into the atmosphere are balanced by the amount we remove. These days, the primary focus is on reducing GHG emissions, mainly CO2 and methane. Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever completely eliminate GHG emissions, there’s growing recognition that we also need ways to remove them from the atmosphere. This combination of reducing and removing GHG emissions hopefully gets us to net zero.

You hear a lot of governments and corporations around the world pledging to get to net zero by mid-century. It’s a gargantuan challenge.

The Big Switch is about how we get there.

The first season – five episodes – focuses on our electricity grid, the collection of infrastructure and organizations that deliver electricity from where it’s generated (power plants, waterfalls, wind and solar farms, nuclear reactors) to where it’s consumed (homes, schools, buildings, factories). 

Dr. Lott uses the disastrous electricity system breakdown in Texas in February 2021 as the lens through which she and her guests analyze the grid we have today and the grid we need in future to get to net zero.

Episode 1 explores the basics of how the grid works and why it’s such a critical element in getting to net zero.

Episode 2 is about the line-up of “players” we need in a net zero grid, from renewable energy sources to energy storage to carbon removal through direct air capture.

Renewable energy like wind and solar is generated over widespread areas rather than a few centralized power plants. Episode 3 is about how we need to build new high-voltage transmission lines to move widely distributed electricity, often from rural areas, to towns and cities. 

In episode 4, Dr. Lott looks at how distributed energy sources both balance out the supply of electricity and make grid management more complicated.

Episode 5 is about the rules of the grid including laws and regulations and how they need to change to support the move to net zero.  

And that’s just season 1.

I was familiar with some of this material from reading Gretchen Bakke’s 2016 book The Grid, which I reviewed here, but I still learned a lot from this podcast.

The episodes are about 35 minutes long and free of the time-wasting chit-chat that I find really annoying on other podcasts.

I know infrastructure isn’t a topic that excites a lot of people, but the grid really is the backbone of our energy system. Dr. Lott and her guests on The Big Switch make the story of our grid and the challenge of moving to net zero interesting, easy to understand, and even dramatic.

Why Texas’s Power Grid Still Hasn’t Been Fixed
By Rachel Monroe in The New Yorker, Feb. 9, 2022

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1 Response to The Big Switch

  1. Pingback: The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future | Unsolicited Feedback

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