The grid is an accident of history and of culture, in no way intrinsic to how we produce, deliver and consume electrical power. Yet this is the system the United States ended up with, a jerry-built structure now so rickety and near collapse that a strong wind or a hot day can bring it to a grinding halt.
The grid is now under threat from a new source: renewable and variable energy, which puts stress on its logics as much as its components.
In an entertaining, perceptive and deeply researched fashion, cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke uses the history of an increasingly outdated infrastructure to show how the United States has gone from seemingly infinite technological prowess to a land of structural instability. She brings humor and a bright eye to contemporary solutions and to the often surprising ways in which these succeed or fail. And the consequences of failure are significant.
Our national electrical grid grew during an era when monopoly, centralisation and standardisation meant strength. Yet as we've increasingly become a nation that caters to local needs, and as a plethora of new renewable energy sources comes online, our massive system is dangerously out of step.
Charting the history of our electrical grid, Bakke helps us see what we all take for granted, shows it as central to our culture and identity as a people and reveals it to be the linchpin in our aspirations for a clean-energy future.
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Needed more... and less
- J. Pegg
After I heard Gretchen Bakke interviewed on Fresh Air, I could not wait to read this book, so I downloaded it the day it was released. The book did not meet my expectations. It was about as non-technical as such a book could get. There were minimal explanations of important concepts such as cutting edge storage technologies, including battery storage. Most of the discussion revolved around soft topics repeated over and over again, such as that people want wireless devices and hope for wireless charging. The book did explain some of the basic problems with the grid, including that electricity cannot be stored and that its supply must always equal its demand. It did make clear that renewables such as solar and wind are a problem when the sun sets or the wind calms and their adapters suddenly need electricity from old forms of generation.
In general, the style of writing alternated between wordy, tedious repetition and trying to be silly or cute. Similar to so many books written these days, this one would have benefitted form some better editing.
During her interview, it came out that the author is an anthropologist, not an engineer. Perhaps she should have collaborated with an engineer or even a science writer. For me, I had hope for much more technical information about the present and future than Bakke provided.