Fraying Wires: How Policymakers Can Fix America’s Electricity Infrastructure

electric-pylonsOn any given day, half a million Americans lose power for two or more hours. Those blackouts cost our economy billions of dollars. 70 percent of the U.S. grid that delivers electricity to our homes and businesses is at least 25 years old, and comparatively we endure more outages than other developed nations. We suffer some 360 minutes of outages each year, compared with just 16 minutes for Korea, 15 for Germany, and 11 for Japan.

A new book – The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future – offers these and other insights about the challenges of modernizing America’s electric grid – the set of wires and transformers that transmit and deliver power. According to the author, McGill University professor and cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, our current system is “worn down, it’s patched up, and every hoped-for improvement is expensive and bureaucratically bemired.”

But change could be on the horizon. With a new president and Congress taking office in January, legislation to address America’s deteriorating infrastructure, like bridges and lead-laden water pipes, will likely be debated. High on their list of priorities should be new policies encouraging private-sector investment and innovation in the electricity sector.

Here are four ideas from Bakke that the new Congress and administration should keep in mind as they consider legislation that will lay the groundwork for America’s energy future.

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Encourage competition via data

Smart meters, internet-enabled devices that communicate detailed information to utilities about their customers’ electricity use, are a first step toward reimagining our grid, Bakke notes. Yet she also points out that the devices initially offer more benefits to the utilities than to their customers. It doesn’t have to be that way. Customers deserve access to their own smart meter data so they can gain more control over their energy use and costs. But right now, most Americans (even those with smart meters installed) don’t have access to their own energy data in a way that’s useful.

Lack of access prevents third parties and technologies, such as smart thermostats, from digesting and synthesizing data into actionable steps that increase efficiency and lower pollution. Moreover, the enormous quantities of data from these modern devices can allow state utility commissions and power companies to design rate structures and other policies that shift electricity use around the clock. This can help cut their expenses and eliminate the need for costly new and dirty “peaker” plants that operate only a few hours each year when demand is high. Policymakers should allow greater access to customer data by municipalities, third-party service providers, and customers”]

Connect a microgrid system

Bakke pays particular attention to microgrids thereby providing greater security and reliability. She notes the U.S. military is converting all of its domestic bases to microgrids that can be “islanded” and protected during storms or other disruptions. Google is doing the same for its headquarters and data centers.

“Our grid could just as well be an amalgamation of 10,000 microgrids as a single system,” writes the author. “So long as microgrids can function interoperably with each other, and do so most of the time, they are indistinguishable from the end user’s point of view from the grid we already have. The difference is resiliency.”

Fund the race to storage

Improving the system involves far more than simply adding lots of solar panels and wind turbines. In fact, because sun and wind aren’t constant and we’re still studying how best to store electricity, these new ways of cleanly making electricity add complexity to the grid’s efficient and reliable operation. Bakke focuses on storage, which she calls the “holy grail” because “it allows us to build an electric world that…has the flexibility to move and change with whatever the 21st century will throw at us.”

Creative legislation

Bakke correctly notes that the grid is not just a technological system. She writes that it’s “also a legal one, a business one, a political one, a cultural one, and a weather-driven one.” Reforming – or, as she puts it, “reimagining” – the grid requires addressing a complex collection of integrated challenges. It requires confronting the “behemoths of old power” who will oppose any transformations that threaten their profits.

Bakke correctly notes that the grid is not just a technological system.

She does not claim to know what the grid will look like in 30 years. Yet she argues “we now live in the era of infrastructural dreaming” of a “grid so jam-packed with computerization that it sparkles.”

She forsees a common platform that “would need to be open to all the strange sorts of things people are dreaming up and building today (from vehicle to grid-enabled self-driving car pods to nanogrids) and to the boring old stuff we’re stuck with for the moment (like natural gas combustion plants and old coal or nuclear).”

Bakke’s perspective is critical as both Republicans and Democrats increasingly discuss ways to improve and upgrade our nation’s infrastructure. While most of those debates focus on roads and water treatment facilities, perhaps the most important infrastructure is the grid.

Electricity is critical to our modern economy. The U.S. can no longer afford frequent blackouts. It needs to integrate sustainable and non-polluting resources. It must empower both consumers and entrepreneurs. It requires, according to Bakke, “a self-healing, processor-dense, intelligent grid.”

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  1. Posted November 7, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    obviously a brilliant book reviewed by the brilliant dick munson. the radioactive 800 pound gorilla is the nuke industry and its cancerous residue. the 800 pound phoenix is the photovoltaic cell & its ability to rid us of the grid altogether. see you in solartopia….

  2. Posted November 17, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the much in the article except for the last point by Bakke, ” It requires, according to Bakke, “a self-healing, processor-dense, intelligent grid.” If we divide the grid into “critical functions” the 18 – 23% of what an industrialized society needs during extended outages (data centers; cell towers; pipeline pumps for water, sewage & fuels; intersection signal lights, and in buildings sump pumps, WIFI, elevators, and some basic A/C & heating – and the remaining grid of niceties but not essential services — then the electronic-loaded smart grid makes sense for the “non-critical” half. Because as we have seen with cyber breaches of our spies (OPM), The Pentagon, White House & State Dept, and even the massive intrusion recently stalling out Netflix … there is no way to absolutely ensure and insure a web-enabled grid. But for the smaller portion that is essential, why not integrate hybrid, on-site renewable energy systems with energy storage to power a critical function ? Examples proliferate around the world of this approach providing absolute reliability, no fuel train to be disrupted, no emissions, and quite cost-effective. In effect we mights a non-critical “smart grid” for the 78 percents and a rather dumb-dedicated, distributed renewable energy approach for the other 22 percent. – Scott Sklar, Adjunct Professor, The George Washington University, and Chair, Steering Committee, The Sustainable Energy Coalition, Washington, DC

    • Dick Munson
      Posted December 12, 2016 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Always good to read wise thoughts from my old friend Professor Sklar. Good point about the potential for hybrid, on-site renewable/storage systems to power critical functions. More efforts to highlight current examples, as Scott knows, would be very helpful.

  3. Posted November 17, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Exceptional post but I was wondering if you could write a
    litte more on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further.