David A. Antler

The Grid

The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future

By Gretchen Bakke

Read: 2017-04-28
Rating: 6/10
ISBN: 978-1608196104

Describes the barely-visible power network that makes modern life possible. Nowadays power outages seem to be happening more frequently, and this is a book that will give you some insight as to why. A fairly entertaining read, but I did struggle to remain focused at times.

my notes

The 2003 East Coast blackout, caused by an overgrown tree and a computer bug, blacked out eight states and 50 million people for two days. So thorough and vast was this cascading blackout that it shows as a visible dip on America’s GDP for that year. Six billion dollars lost: that’s $60,000 per hour per blacked-out business of lost revenues across 93,000 square miles.

60 percent of men who run our electricity system are within five years of retirement.

This is our grid in a nutshell: it is a complex just-in-time system for making, and almost instantaneously delivering, a standardized electrical current everywhere at once.

In fact, of all the power produced in the Gorge, from whatever source, only about 15 percent is used locally. The rest is shipped on down the lines to whoever will buy it.

Voltage is measured by means of a potentiometer (it does, one must admit, sound like a poorly accomplished sex joke from start to finish).

In 1900 only one factory in thirteen used electric motors, and only one domestic light in twenty was electrified—the rest were still gas lamps, kerosene lamps, and candles. At home, people often preferred the wink and flicker of fire to the more even, unwavering, if equally warm, light of incandescent bulbs.

If in 1892 Chicago had a million people, fewer than 5,000 of them used electricity at home. Some optimistic souls thought that one day Chicago might have as many as 25,000 regular users of electric current. Such expansion was unlikely, but not impossible. A short fourteen years later Insull’s Edison had doubled the Pollyanna’s estimate with 50,000 paying customers; by 1913 he had an improbable 200,000 customers, or a tenth of the population of the city.

“By far the most serious problem of central station management and by far the greatest item of cost of the product is interest on investment.”

The first blow came in the early sixties, when it became clear that technological improvements no longer promised increased plant efficiency; this was primarily a problem of physics. The second law of thermodynamics, and its corollary Carnot’s theorem, dictate that temperature ratios limit the amount of work any given fuel can be expected to do in a heat engine. A traditional power plant is exactly such an engine: it turns fuel into heat. This heat is then used to convert water into a furious jet of steam directed at the blades of a turbine which, with their spinning, turn a shaft. This shaft then pokes into a giant electromagnet, and as the shaft spins inside the magnet, it produces an electric current. A system like this, that converts a fuel—any fuel, coal, plutonium, oil, gas, biomass, or trash—into heat, is going to top out at about 50 percent efficiency. This is an inevitable law. No power plant built by man or some yet-to-be-invented machine intelligence will ever do better than just under 50 percent.

The belief that past successes might be projected indefinitely onto the future regardless of inconvenient truths like the workings of physics was a foolish way to run a business

The reason for this long-standing state support was that electricity was deemed that peculiar kind of public good whose price is driven up rather than down by competition and whose availability is disturbed rather than assured by multiple, competing providers. In the 1970s, however, it slowly became clear that the supposed deleterious effect of competition was less a natural law than a bureaucratically enshrined functional reality. And like much of what Insull built, it had remained true for just long enough for its cultural roots to be forgotten.

In many ways it is more correct to say that Samuel Insull, and not Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla or even George Westinghouse, made America’s grid. He normalized and rendered profitable the central stations without which we would have no grid at all, just a bunch of factories, municipal buildings, and homes with little electricity plants in their basements. He imagined electric light and power as products for the masses not the few; he made it seem natural that the electricity business could only work as a monopoly, and he ushered in an era in which one of the most powerful things one could do with money, and to make money, was to use information to manipulate public opinion and influence public investment.

Samuel Insull’s once insignificant Edison franchise set the stage for both the modern structure of electric power in America and also for a moral and normative sense of what it meant to be a good citizen-consumer. If in 1920 only the poor and the rural had no access to electricity, not just in Chicago but everywhere in America, then in 1950 it was inconceivable that power might be made privately on-site, and by 1970 only suspect radicals and known freaks were off the grid.

On July 2, 1938, Samuel Insull stumbled and then collapsed in a Paris subway station. He was dead upon arrival at the hospital half an hour later. According to his wife his heart was rendered still by the task of mounting and descending such an innumerable quantity of steps. He was a poor man obliged to take public transit.

Commonwealth Edison, the final name of the Chicago utility built by Insull (and still its name today) was decimated by the stock market crash of 1929, taking the life savings of almost all those 600,000 securities holders with it. The Fisk Street Station, Chicago’s first large-scale AC generating plant, was closed by labor unrest in 1942 and again for failure to live up to environmental standards in 2012. Making it, too, part of the story of how America changed around an electric power infrastructure too hardened in its ways to keep up.

Thus did America lose one kind of knowing—that involved in managing a low-tech household—without gaining another kind of knowing—that of the distant complexity undergirding a high-tech household. High-tech here doesn’t mean digital, though that transformation was also on the horizon by the late 1970s; rather, it means a modest but orderly entanglement of analog systems that provided for a comfortable life.

Energy historian Richard Hirsh takes it one step further, arguing that for decades the utilities had been attracting the bottom of the graduating classes from engineering schools: the students who didn’t want an exciting career in “the glamor industries—electronics, aerospace or computers” or who weren’t quite agile enough to land a more interesting job. It was a stagnant sector that promised no adventure and a steady paycheck. As a result, the most risk averse and least facile minds were running the game.

This was what PURPA reversed: The utilities could still be monopolies, but they couldn’t be monopsonies anymore. The utilities now had to buy power from entities making small amounts of electricity in their territory; and they had to pay the same rate for this independently produced power as it would have cost them to make it themselves.

the utilities would take the project of doing the math on the single “avoided costs” parameter of the transition as a means to stall implementation of the entire bill indefinitely. If each small power producer was treated to a long bureaucratic process before receiving a viable contract, then PURPA would fail; the letter of the law having become a tool in the demolition of its spirit.

ISO4 contracts California had about 1700 MW of wind projects in place.” All in 80 MW chunks. “By 1990, California had become home of 85% of the world’s capacity of electricity powered by the wind and 95% of the world’s solar power electricity.”

even today if you drive over Altamont Pass, due east of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, you can still see some of those first Danish-made, movie-star-owned, S&L-financed turbines chugging away, with their stiff, heavy, inflexible blades. It’s been thirty-five years and they still work.

These are small-scale issues compared to what trees do to the high-voltage lines that run from power plants to periurban substations. These long-distance lines are the arterial system of our grid. Bring them down, short them out, or cause them to trip offline by asking them to carry more electrical current than they are able and the system as a whole is thrown into an intense state of risk. This is what happened in 2003 in Ohio. Not just one but three separate trees came into mortal contact with a line.

Extra High Voltage lines, the ones threaded across open prairies and high mountain passes borne up by huge steel towers, carry from 275 kilovolts (kV) to 765 kV, while those that link the corner pole to the side of your house have a low voltage rating, usually around 50 kV. Lines are actually pretty remarkable technology even if they all look the same from ground level; its the shape of the poles that allow average folks to differentiate one voltage rating from the next, but up there the lines that are strung between these poles are a complex assortment of alloys and weaves and nested arrangements of metals, each designed to carry its assigned current safely from the point of production to the point of use.

this bug, called XA/21, did was cause a machine to respond with a busy signal when multiple systems tried to access it simultaneously rather than prioritizing these requests and then taking each of the “calls” in turn.

Historically, utilities made money when people used electricity; the more we used the more money they made. Now they don’t. Today’s utilities make money by transporting power and by trading it as a commodity. While they are still charged with keeping America’s power supply reliable they have a real incentive to sell electricity to whomever will pay the most for it wherever they may be. Long-distance wheeling is to their benefit; it is to the plant owners’ benefit; it is to the energy traders’ benefit; in theory, at least, it is also to our benefit. In fact, the only thing that really suffers from this arrangement is the grid.

This is what vars do: they help ensure a constant voltage in times of stress. As such they are essential to the well-being, reliability, and efficiency of the grid. They are, however, also a very hard sell, because strictly speaking they don’t exist.

The link between these surges (and blackouts and brownouts) and the absence of an invisible non-product from the electric grid is a simple reality about which most of us are entirely clueless.

So ferocious was Bakersfield in its protests against the new meters that community-level resistance to meter installation, wherever in the country it has popped up, has become popularly known as the Bakersfield Effect, as in “The Bakersfield Effect Hits Santa Cruz.”

in rural Maine, residents successfully pushed through an opt-out program because “safety standards for peak exposure limits to radio frequency have not been developed to take into account the particular sensitivity to eyes, testes and other ball-shaped organs.”

The house, or its computerized mind, should be left to make reasonable decisions based upon your desires, while also aligning with the electric company’s most pressing needs.

Enron, with $65.5 billion in assets, was the fifth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history; it owned three utilities, only one of which was in the United States (Portland General Electric), and thirty-eight power plants worldwide, including ten wind farms in the United States and eight hydroelectric dams, all in Oregon.

THEPS can obtain its diesel fuel via an in-situ resource such as biomass conversion.” In other words, kitchen garbage and latrine sludge, burbling away in a specially designed tank about the size of a boxcar, generating biogas (farts and moonshine, or methane and ethanol) that can be siphoned off and used to run the generator and, not incidentally, power the cookstoves. They have called this the TGER (Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery) a nicely self-contained digestion machine that the army has spent three years and $850,000 developing.

the tinkering as much as more formal constructions, are collectively known as grid edge, a term that encompasses everything from hooking up a generator to a house or adding some solar panels to the garage roof or using a 50-MW acronymically named S.P.I.D.E.R.S. microgrid for your base, to building a wind farm, a substation, and private lines into your corporate headquarters.

At the moment there is only one battery on our grid: a 22,000-square-foot, 1,300-ton nickel-cadmium battery that was built outside Fairbanks in 2003. This can supply 40 MW of power for about seven minutes, though it is most often used for twice as long at half the power. Though it does keep the lights on and heaters running for a bit, it isn’t exactly a backup-power system for the grid; it’s a stopgap that allows the local utility the necessary quarter of an hour that it takes to fire up their diesel generators.

Molten salt towers. It’s a tower designed to receive the focused sunlight. It uses an array of flat, movable mirrors (called heliostats) to focus the sun’s rays upon a collector tower (the target). Concentrated solar thermal is seen as one viable solution for renewable, pollution-free energy.

Summary of energy storage in the United States:

Says Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel (which is pushing this technology hard): “Imagine a world where you can charge your devices wherever you are. That’s the world I want to live in.” This is a pretty safe thing for him to say after a massive survey conducted by Intel across forty-five countries revealed that four of the most common complaints people had about their computing devices had to do with the cords.