"The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future", book review

The Grid”: Bakke’s account of the electric power grids doesn’t consider the worst that can happen

Author:            Grethchen Bakke

Title, Subtitle: “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future“

publication date: 2016

ISBN   978-1-60819-610-4

Publication: Bloomsburg, hardcover (also e-book), 349 pages, 30 roman pages, 9 Chapters

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future”, by Gretchen Bakke, promises to be a definitive account of the history, current state, and particularly future of the United States power grids (three of them).

Indeed, the early chapters give a detailed account of how free market forces starting in the late nineteenth century, first led to small local power companies which gradually would consolidate into today’s industry.  An important milestone was the “discovery” and quick engineering of alternating current.   The History Channel had covered some of this ground in a 2012 series “The Men Who Built America”.   An important concept is that electricity itself cannot be stored or redirected, although charge is stored as chemical energy in batteries.  Resistance, not distance, determines how current flows.

The book does cover the mentality of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which was launched by the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 as political retaliation for the US alliance with Israel after the sudden Yom Kippur war.  Jimmy Carter’s fireside chats emphasized the permanence of the need for energy conservation, with sweaters or leggings in winter and 80 degree thermostat settings in summer (which Sun Computer systems bragged it honored).  It got worse with the Iran hostage crisis, but during the Reagan years energy turned around, as industry produced its way out of the jam.  I can remember when moving to Dallas in 1979 that even some people who worked for oil companies thought we would reach “peak oil”.  But by the late 80s, there was oversupply of oil, leading to the Texas real estate crash and savings and loan scandal (which she doesn’t cover but I know it well because I lived through it).

I also had oil stocks, which increased in value, and my parents had a lot of utility stocks, which is one reason why they were financially stable (it didn’t hurt that a relative on the mother’s side owned a gas well in Ohio).  And I had a few I.T. job interviews with oil companies and with Texas Energy (through a consulting firm).  One of the gigs might have had me working at the nuclear power plant near Glen Rose (which I actually visited in 1982).

A critical point in the history of utilities was the passage or PURPA, or Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, Section 210, which, while allowing utilities to remain local “monopolies”, denied their continued “monopsony”, of being the only customers.  The result would be more incentive for local production of power.

Bakke does cover failures of the grid, but incompletely.  She gives a detailed account of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 which developed as a cascading of events after a tree fell on a power line in Ohio.  A software bug called XA/21 led to the failure to parse line signals properly, leading them to “add up” and overload various other circuit breaks, forcing utilities all over the northeast (and into Canada) to shut down.  She says that the greatest enemies of power grid stability are overgrown vegetation and animals (especially squirrels).  But perverse economic incentives had led companies to neglect some kinds of maintenance and software testing.

The other big catastrophes, in her account, were the Great Gale of 2007 in the Pacific Northwest (starting December 1), and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.  Lower Manhattan, below 34th Street, lost power for a week, mainly because much of Con Ed’s infrastructure was place too low to the ground; built on higher floors it would have survived.

Later she does discuss physical attacks on the grid, especially a major rifle assault in the Silicon Valley in California in April 2013, which might have had much worse consequences than it did, and maintains that small attacks (as well as “accidents”) are common.  But she never goes into the biggest threats – like a Carrington-level solar storm (which we may have barely averted in the summer of 2012), or an enemy-launched high altitude electromagnetic pulse attack.  That would naturally lead to a discussion about the inadequate transformer manufacturing and replacement capacity of the US utility industry.  She does mention cyber attacks, but only briefly.

She makes an interesting distinction between resilience (she spells it “resiliency”) and security, and says that utilities and consumers need to stress the former.  One way to achieve some resilience is decentralization (less reliance on power shared over hundreds of miles) and use of micro-grids, which many companies today (even some banks) have.   Small local grids can often effectively use wind or solar power, or natural gas generation which is usually much cleaner than coal or oil. There has been controversy over whether utilities must buy back from consumers who generate their own electricity, from renewable sources.

She looks to the future, mentioning fusion down the road, but not acknowledging the work of Taylor Wilson (Clines’s book “The Boy Who Played with Fusion”).  She does discuss the possibility of transmitting power wirelessly by magnetic resonance, an idea of Martin Soljacic at MIT, replacing earlier ideas of Tesla.

In her epilogue, she describes experiencing a blackout at home in winter.

It seems to me that most people assume that their background infrastructure (plugs and sockets) will always be there for them, and they can go about making money without thinking about it.  But what if we’re all wrong?

The author is a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago.

(Published: Monday, Aug. 22, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)