The State of the American Grid Is ... Confusing

Transmission ain't what it used to be.

A power outage in one of the power stations in America during sunset
Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Population growth, global warming, and mankind’s increasing reliance on technology is forcing governments, businesses, and individuals to reckon with the source of their power. Fossil fuels, which once loomed like a dinosaur over the energy industry, are being brought down to size by renewables, which are both increasingly viable and hard to understand within the context of infrastructure not optimized for their use. Dr. Gretchen Bakke’s reckons with this problematic integration in her new book The Grid, which takes an in-depth look at how energy moves from point A to point B and what that means for the people at both point.

She is quick to point out that the grid facilitates the introduction of renewable energy into modern homes and offices while also presenting obstacles and confusions and spurring NIMBYism. It is an imperfect system, but it’s what we’ve got. Bakke talked to Inverse about how Americans can use the grid to move forward.

What made you want to write about the grid right now?

I saw these little hints of something odd going on with the renewables in our electricity system when I started the project in 2005. Each one of those — each home solar system, each change of law, each big wind park, each big new idea for a big battery, or whether or not we can we get everybody to start driving electric cars — has an impact on the shape of the infrastructure, how well it works. When I see it in my mind, I don’t see this giant machine that’s solid and steel. I see it as dancing. It’s alive and it’s moving and we’re the ones that are pushing it in particular directions.

A fog lifts as windmills turn near the U.S.-Mexico border on December 10, 2015 near La Grulla, Texas.

Getty Images / John Moore

Are these changes purely a result of the changing way we use the grid?

There are towns that are getting off the grid that are municipalizing their utility for example. There are laws in particular states that have changed so that now you pay for how much electricity you use. In other states, it’s illegal for the state to charge for how much electricity you use. It’s this kind of uneven, shifty time. You can check the box on your utility bills that says ‘I want 100% renewable power.’ Or there are some states now where there’s a clearing house online and you can look at all the plans that are offered and say, ‘I want 100% windpower and here’s how much I’m willing to pay for it.’

It’s weird, there seem to be some parallels between the evolution of the grid and the evolution of healthcare. It’s just sort of like this patchwork that evolved with no plan or reason.

That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what’s happening. Now there’s this issue of global warming, so suddenly you have states like Oregon that say they’re not going to have coal anymore and states like California that say they’re not going to have nuclear anymore. So they pull power sources out and each of those power sources has a rationality to the way it makes electricity and pushed that rationality onto the grid.

The Grid by Gretchen Bakke

You hear everyone talk about the growth of wind and solar, but generating too much electricity is almost as much of a problem as not generating enough. Could you expand on that a little bit?

The big problem with electricity is that we don’t really have a good way to store it yet. We’re working really hard. For the moment, when we produce electricity, we need to also use it. There are all of these things called balancing authorities — many of them are utilities — and they predict how much electricity will be needed and arrange the machines that are making electricity in order to produce that much.

So the faster the wind blows, the faster the turbine spins, the more electricity the thing produces. And so then there’s this scramble to turn down other things, or — and this is the problem when there’s a lot of wind energy — to not turn anything off.

There’s always the obvious answer, which is: ‘Why don’t you just set a turbine up and connect a line to it?’ A turbine is just a thing that turns and you can just shoot all your electricity to turn the thing so you don’t lose power. And that absurdity is part of why we don’t have a good way to store electricity. The people who own the wind turbines get their subsidy money from the federal government if those wind turbines are running. So they don’t want to shut them off, cause they don’t get paid if they shut them off.

Elon Musk’s Gigafactory just opened. How does his vision or his approach play into the grid? Is that the storage solution everyone wants?

After 2008 when people say storage, everyone is like, ‘Batteries, batteries, batteries. Batteries are the way. Batteries are the future. Batteries are how it’s going to be.’ But because I started to work on the book before 2008, I saw that transition happen. Before 2008, when you talked about storage it was still a giant issue but there were ideas all over the place. It was sort of insane what people were coming up with, and if you could make it through the battery talk, a lot of that stuff is still there, it’s still part of the conversation but it doesn’t percolate up. I don’t know if you remember this but lithium ion batteries for a long time were pooh-poohed because they caused people’s electronics to burst into flames.

Stuff like this was more common back in the day. via Giphy

So the lithium-ion battery was not the hero of the story, the conversation was more wide-ranging. These days it’s true, especially with the Powerwalls and with Elon Musk’s Masterplan Part 2, which is great.

Musk’s vision is that all the batteries in these self-driving cars move people around in this urban and suburban space and also serve as backup power to the grid, helping it to balance it at all times. And everyone who has solar on the roof now would have a little battery pack so we’d have distributed generation with solar panels.

Photovoltaic power panels stand at Abaste's El Bonillo Solar Plant.

Getty Images / Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

These batteries have limited life cycles. If everyone has a lithium battery in their car, or their home, doesn’t that present different issues?

I think one of the great questions about batteries and one of the reasons to be suspicious of them as the bright gold and shiny answer right now is that they’re very polluting. Using a chemical means that you use electricity to produce a chemical reaction that then later you can reverse to reproduce electricity. There’s no electricity in a battery. It’s a setup of a set of chemical reactions that then, when you turn them around the other way, you generate almost the same amount of electric current. They do wear down.

Will the day come where we push a button and a car like this shows up at our door?

Getty Images / BWP Media

How does the American grid compare to grids elsewhere in the world?

I actually like the way Americans do things. One of the reasons that all of the kooky ideas come out of the U.S. is that there’s a slot there to sort of play with them. The reason the whole world is running on solar right now or running towards it is because of Jimmy Carter.

How does usage fit into this equation?

The fact that the way America’s system is setup right now is for people to use as much as they want whenever they want means there’s a lot of work that can be done just automating the demand side of things. Which is when people talk about the Internet of Things that’s what they mean. So that your dishwasher, for example, is having a conversation with the grid that doesn’t include you, about, is there power available right now? Is it expensive? When will there be power available? Oh, I’ll turn myself on then.

Boom, you have a dishwasher that suddenly goes on at two o’clock in the morning.

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