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

By Gretchen Bakke, Ph.D., Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016, 352 pages, Price$27, ISBN: 978-1-60819-610-4

Gretchen Bakke is not a physicist nor an electrical engineer, she is a cultural anthropologist. In her book, “The Grid” she shows us that the electrical grid is not just a bunch of wires that connect buildings to power plants. Rather it is a byproduct of history, culture, technology, profit and politics. As the societal demands for electricity change the grid must adapt and the path to a high-functioning, cleaner, greener grid will not be straightforward.

Bakke starts the book with Grid Week, a conference for those who make, regulate and transport electricity. The key note speaker is Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu calling for more renewables. Bakke focuses on the people listening to the address and you can feel the tension in the room. This will not be an easy task. Electricity is a unique commodity in that as soon as it is made it is delivered. Renewables are unreliable, at times under- or over-producing at the whim of the weather. Solar panels drop out as a cloud passes over and wind production spikes as a wind storm rolls in. Stability depends on the people running the grid to balance variable consumption with variable generation and that means changing infrastructure.

To understand the grid in its current state Bakke takes the reader back to the 1880’s. Electricity was small scale with power plants built for single mansions or with a singular purpose in mind (e.g. running San Francisco’s street cars). Evolution of the grid was a co-evolution with the devices, gadgets and machines that needed electricity. Initially there was no single grid, but multiple grids with different voltages for different uses with components that weren’t interchangeable. Access to electricity was not a right as we think of it today. It was an elite product.

The consolidation of power and widespread availability was done to increase profits. Samuel Insull, a former assistant to Thomas Edison, realized that it was more profitable to run a power plant close to 100% of the time. This required him to diversify his customer base, sell electricity cheaper during off peak hours and work with politicians trading regulations for a guaranteed customer base. For the decades that followed, bigger meant better. By the 1960s and 1970s American life was inseparable from electric gadget — luxuries were now necessities. Electric utilities were at their peak. This began to change as power plants ran into the Carnot limit and the environmental cost became apparent.

Electric utilities had both a monopoly — as sole producers — and a monopsony — as sole buyers — of electricity. For anyone else who tried to produce electricity the utility set the price. With the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 the Carter Administration changed that. This required utilities to buy power from small green power plants at a price equivalent to what it would cost them to produce it. This forced smaller producers to produce cheaply. Initially technology wasn’t up to snuff but the incentives were enough to spur innovation.

The Energy Policy Act took this separation of electrical generation from distribution a step further. It treated electricity like any other commodity that can be made in one place and shipped to another. Utilities were now the shippers without any control over how the electricity was generated or where it was shipped. Electricity was now “shipped” to farther places, wherever there is demand. This was done without upgrading the grid that carries it. Bakke reminds the reader that nothing lasts forever and recounts several catastrophes and near catastrophes caused by a failing infrastructure. She provides a detailed account of the 2003 Eastern blackout caused by too tall trees and a computer bug.

After identifying the weaknesses of the current grid to meet modern demands Bakke takes some time to look at what is needed in a grid of the future. One important piece of a new and improved grid is information. To balance real time consumption with real time production smart meters need to be incorporated into smart grids. This is not as easy as it sounds and Bakke looks at an attempt to do this in Boulder, Colorado. Ultimately that project failed because of a resistance to smart meters due to privacy concerns, the project being over budget and under “smart” due to poor choices in technology.

A future grid must also be resilient. Things will break but systems must be engineered to get back up and running quickly. To highlight this need Bakke dives into case studies of two great storms: The Great Gale in the Pacific Northwest and Sandy on the East Coast. She provides some ideas on how to recover quickly, such as smaller, more local and more diverse powers stations. Some microgrids — small scale grids that can plug into the macrogrid but that can also work in isolation — have been constructed since Sandy to improve resiliency.

Variable generation from green power necessitates a place to store that power. Some small-scale storage systems currently exist and they show that thinking outside of the box can be beneficial, resulting in such innovations as large battery banks that can provide backup for a few minutes, pumped hydro, forced air in caverns, and molten salt towers.

Grid scale battery storage is far off, but small distributed batteries (matching such small distributed green generation as rooftop solar) may be the answer. Electric cars that can give and take from the grid when needed are offered as a possible solution.

Finally, Bakke reminds us of the human side of the grid. The future grid is not all about the right technology, it is also about the people. The future grid must not only be smart, it must be “wise” by taking into account how people want to generate power and how they want to use or not use it through conservation.

Hillary Stephens
Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Pierce College Fort Steilacoom

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.