Musings on “the Grid”
Looking out the window at the beautiful landscape I am struck by the lines that intersect my view in every direction. These lines are everywhere, intersecting every part of my life. Grimacing at the sheer volume of their presence, I simultaneously am forced to understand that they are the lifelines to the electrified world that I so readily partake in. This is the grid, the infrastructure that makes electrical use as possible as we know it. In our collective race toward progress, growth, technological advance, and the integration of renewable energy I wonder “what about the grid?.” This question led me to Gretchen Bakke’s 2016 book “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future.” The following are a few takeaways that struck me as important: the grids’ age, threats to the grid, and progress to be made.
The electrical grid began to develop in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. It was only in 1936 that the Rural Electrification Act set its sights on electrifying rural American homes, and since then we have come so far. We have reached all the corners of our country to the point that electricity is now seen as a basic human right (p.46). However, our grid is largely being neglected. In 2002 it was noted that only 17 percent of the known issues in a certain grid sector were addressed (p.120). Basic grid maintenance, such as tree overgrowth (one of the number one culprits of power outages), is costly and requires an extensive workforce that the utility companies largely underfund (p.119-125).
The grid, from the power plants to the light switch in your kitchen, is a highly complex intricate balance of many factors and we need to maintain an understanding that this complex system doesn’t function if its individual parts are not properly maintained. Beyond this basic maintenance, the grid is also becoming overloaded and outdated by the speed at which we develop infrastructures that rely upon it. It would be advantageous to us, as a growing community, to pay attention to the grid that makes our modern lives possible.
On top of government regulation and incentives for the big utility providers, Bakke suggests that a shift in thinking and actions on the part of the end-users (us) can have a significant impact on helping prolong and improve the grid’s ability to function. We cannot do away with the grid, so there needs to be a willingness to think differently about our energy use. Using smart controls to help balance line loads, developing microgrids, utilizing renewables, and considering the whole of our highly interconnected electrical community are a few ways to think productively about contributing to the longevity of our grid. Initiatives like the SmartGridCity in Boulder, which started in 2008 and lost momentum in 2014, included some of this type of thinking but fell short when financial burdens exceeded the expected limits and goals and project specifics were not properly communicated to or understood by the public (p.161-166).
If we want a viable and lasting grid and an energy mix that includes renewable energy sources, we need to invest time, money, and ingenuity into keeping the grid not only in operation but in a state of progress that matches our ambitions in the electrical and technological sectors. Being committed to renewable energy development is not enough, we must broaden our efforts and understanding to include the basic infrastructure, the grid, that will continue to make renewable development a viable and possible future. Education and willingness to embrace new ways of interacting with electrical use are the future.
Source: Bakke, Gretchen Anna. The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017.