Monday, November 14, 2016

The Grid by Gretchen Bakke

Anthropologist Gretchen Bakke has written about a system integral to the American lifestyle that we associate more with engineers: the electrical grid. The Grid describes how we arrived at the system we have, the forces that are operating on it and how they might shape its future.

The grid is more than a set of wires on poles. It is also a system of companies, markets, laws, regulations, government agencies, cultures and individual people. As an engineer, I feel it is important for me to be aware of the business, policy and cultural aspects of my work. Technology cannot be easily isolated from these things. An engineer who focuses completely on technology risks putting a lot of effort into a solution that fails for important non-technical reasons.

Having commented on engineering, I should mention that Bakke’s book is written for laymen.
She explains the science and technology of electricity in terms that I think most people can understand.

One of the reasons she doesn’t need to resort to deep technological or scientific explanations it that technology is not the biggest barrier to the grid of the future. Of course, technology is very important, but much of what we need to make our grid more resilient and wireless is already in our hands, or will be within our grasp in the near future.

The harder things to wrangle are the business and regulatory aspects of the grid. Renewable energy sources (especially variable sources like wind and solar), distributed generation (which is becoming increasingly affordable), increased efficiency, flat or declining demand, and regulatory reforms over the last three decades have put the squeeze on electric utilities. Our electric utilities, and the system of large, central generation plants they operate, were built for the business and regulatory setting of the early 20th Century, when rapidly increasing demand meant that the consolidation of generation into large plants controlled by highly-regulated monopolies made sense as a way to provide ever cheaper power for an ever growing population of customers.

By the 1960s, this model of growth was failing putting upward pressure on electric prices. Regulatory reforms starting in the 1980s introduced competition to electric markets that put another squeeze on utility profits.

These historic changes are still in action and accelerating. Environmental regulation and customer expectations about the use of renewable energy are also a growing pressure on the system, especially because the variability of solar and wind energy make it difficult to balance demand and generation on the grid, which must be done constantly and almost instantaneously.

In addition to describing how our grid came to be and the troubling weaknesses it has in light of our changing environment and expectations, Bakke looks to the future. Of course, no one knows what the grid make look like, but current developments have the potential to scale up to shape the grid.

A future grid is likely to be a highly computerized system of integrated microgrids that can operate independently when the larger grid is out. It will include many generators distributed across the grid (large, central power plants are on the way out) that take advantage of alternative and renewable energy sources. New developments in energy storage, such as the batteries that will be in fleets of electric cars, and a host of smart meters, homes and appliances will help us balance the grid. We’ll need to develop standards that allow all this new technology to communicate and work together as it also controls the existing parts of the grid that continue to be useful. Continued regulatory reform will be needed to adapt to these changes and possibly to force openness into a market that existing power monopolies may be tempted to guard. Utilities will need to find new business models, and we all might need to be open to what they could be, because it is unlikely that they’ll be able to keep going by selling kilowatt-hours in the old fashioned way.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Bakke, Gretchen. The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.