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The Grid: A Biography of America’s Electricity Infrastructure (book review)

Some think the biggest obstacle to renewable energy is Big Oil. Others blame conservative climate deniers.

The real culprit may be an old, old friend, the electrical grid—the collection of power plants, transmission lines and distribution stations that we’ve come to depend on. To grow into the new age of solar, wind, storage and energy efficiency, we need to get to know the grid—where it came from, how it works, and why it resists new forms of energy production and use.

Enter “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future” by cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke. She takes the reader back to the era of Thomas Edison and Nicholas Tesla to show how the grid—something we now expect as a common right— started as a tangle of competing technologies and business interests largely for the elite set.

the-grid-bookThe book is more of a business and history lesson than a technical description, so it may be frustrating to technical people who are more interested in how it works. In fact, some of the analogies (eg. DC vs AC power) may put off more technical readers. But since the grid has been shaped by America’s evolution as a society, the book is valuable for a country struggling to assimilate new approaches to power generation and consumption.

After an introduction to current energy challenges, Bakke uses the rise in wind power to show how the inconstant, distributed nature of renewables stands in stark contrast to the traditional model of centralized power plants, one-way transmission resources and largely passive consumers.

Bakke then explores how we got here, starting with Edison’s Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan and the challenges of DC power. She explains how Westinghouse’s AC systems overcame challenges of distance and proliferating voltage requirements. Then we meet Samuel Insull, Edison’s second-in-command who developed the first “modern” utility model based on the concept of cheap electricity and ever expanding generation and demand.

After decades of steady growth, the oil shocks and nuclear plant scares of the 1970s turned that model on its head—with President Carter personifying the concept of energy efficiency as a new national ideal. Bakke shows how this shock to the utility industry exposed the fragility of the grid, and the obstacles to responding to changing economic and climate concerns.

The answer: a smarter grid, a model challenging both technically and societally, as Bakke shows in early efforts in Texas and Colorado. She then explores the current ideas for building a more resilient infrastructure: microgrids, energy storage, renewables and EVs. The reader can see how these changes at the grid’s edge are disassociating utilities from energy generation and its steady revenue.

Bakke closes the book with a call to “dematerialize the infrastructure while simultaneously making power ambient—ever present, never sought.” This is an interesting perspective. It may have been hard to imagine, 50 years ago, that you could make a phone call from the top of a mountain to a friend on another continent—and incur no long-distance charges. Since then, a monopolistic telephone system morphed into a worldwide cellular infrastructure. Similarly, Bakke seems to suggest that the long-term structure of the grid will appear to be no grid at all. Instead, decentralized renewable power, microgrids, energy storage, efficiencies and smart technologies will transform “the biggest machine in the world” into a reliable, ubiquitous and largely unseen source of energy. It will require strict adherence to “inclusiveness” across utilities, regulators, governments, and consumers—a daunting, but necessary, societal effort to align our energy needs with the blunt realities of climate change and the decline of fossil fuels.

The Grid is a good layperson introduction to our energy past and future. If you are not distracted by some rambling passages and odd phrases (about halfway down page 138, Gretchen) bring it on your next long airplane flight.

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About David Smith (18 Articles)
Contributing editor David Smith is a writer and marketing consultant focusing on clean technology. He has held creative and marketing executive positions in technology companies and marketing agencies, and has a background in journalism and electrical engineering. He has consulted with emerging start-ups and Fortune 500 companies on market positioning, branding and communications strategies. An EV enthusiast, he has spoken on B2B marketing and social media at a variety of industry events.

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