Why is it so hard to green the grid?
Author and anthropologist Gretchen Bakke explains the 20th century hang-ups preventing a cleaner energy future.
America’s aging energy infrastructure is increasingly fragile, and it almost only ever makes the headlines when things go wrong. That was the case earlier this month, when fear of wildfires caused California’s utility company, PG&E, to shut off its power plants, leaving thousands of households in the dark. And it was the case this summer, when a “flawed connection” between pieces of equipment left the entire west side of Manhattan without electricity for hours.
But electricity infrastructure is also a remarkable example of 20th century innovation, something the anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, learned over the course of the decade she spent researching her book. Bakke traces the grid’s failures today — in particular, its inability to adapt to the renewable sources of energy needed for a sustainable future — back to its very inception.
In this Sidewalk Talk Q&A, Bakke explains the history of the grid and how it works today, the operational and economic reasons why it’s so hard to incorporate renewables, and where the future of electricity is headed.
I think most people don’t have a good picture in their minds of what the grid is. Could you describe it?
Yeah, it’s funny that it’s called the grid, right? Because it’s not gridded. It’s really a giant mass of machines that produce electricity. There’s thousands of power plants on the U.S. electric grid and thousands of utilities that manage it; big high voltage wires that bring electricity from where those power plants are to where people live; and then a low voltage network, the wooden poles in neighborhoods. Then that goes into your house and it goes through your meter, which is a little tiny piece of the grid that counts how much electricity you use — and now counts how much electricity you…