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.

By Vanessa Quirk

Power lines running across a field

(Image: Unsplash user Alexandru Boicu)

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 produce, if you have solar panels — and then it goes into your wall and it goes out your outlet and it goes into you toaster.

If you push down your toaster, what you’re saying to the grid is, look, there’s an easy way over here. And what’s nice about electricity is it will always take the path of least resistance. It’s going to go the easiest way. And as the electricity passes through the toaster, the toaster is slowing it down, and as it slows it down it produces heat, and that’s what toasts your bread.

Are you suggesting that my toaster is part of the grid?

The toaster is absolutely part of the grid. So is your cellphone battery, you can actually take a little piece of the grid away and walk around with it in your pocket.

The thing that has to be said is, what nobody knows about the electricity system, which is completely impossible and totally true, is that it has to be balanced at all times. Which means the amount of electricity that’s being produced has to equal the amount of electricity that’s being used. And if you turn on your porch light, there is, somewhere on that system, a power plant that’s producing a little bit more power to accommodate that.

This was one of my biggest takeaways from your book. At every moment, electricity consumption must equal production. But I wasn’t quite wrapping my head around why exactly — why does it have to be that way?

If we all still used steam, we would be throwing coal into the boiler and we would be using the power that that coal was making where we live. What electricity just allows you to do is to throw coal into a machine and use the power really far away.

If you put too many things, too much draw, compared to how much electricity you’re actually producing, that’s when you get a brown out. That’s when all the lights dim. Because of that, the system is designed for this constant voltage.

Before we started to introduce renewables, the system simply relied on a couple of data points: what season it was, how many people lived on their system, and what the average use had been the year before. The season mattered because it’s darker in the winter and it’s colder, so people use more power then. Or in the summer, now that we have a lot of air conditioning. But you could do it, statistically, you could figure out how much you needed to be producing in order to cover the needs of the people who were there. The utilities made a plan once every three months. They decided how much power to produce based on a fairly small amount of numbers.

Is it all automatic? Or is this a manual process?

It’s both. Utilities know that they need to produce a little bit more electricity as people go home from work, for example, or as the sun goes down. It’s probably programmed already to deal with these sort of known things that will change. We are very predictable.

In England, for example, when there’s a soccer match, there’s often a giant surge in electricity, because they’ll be an ad on TV and everybody will get up and they’ll plug in their electric kettle to make a cup of tea. There’s a real worry that the grid will actually crash.

The utilities have all of this extra capacity, power plants essentially, that they’re not using, that they can turn up in a pinch, in these moments where you start to see it happening. It’s like, turn up production, turn up production. And then the tea boils, four minutes later, and down it goes again.

Before we had computers and before we had the internet and before we had a lot of competition and before we had the energy crisis of the 1970s, the grid had this very stable three or four decades. And during that time there was I think 15–20 percent of extra capacity.

As competition and different rules of economics entered the story, the utilities began running a much tighter ship. And that margin of extra capacity has gone way, way, way, way down. And that’s one of the reasons that we’ll have a blackout — simply because there isn’t sufficient capacity. We can’t make, or transit, enough electricity. That’s not the only reason that you’ll get a blackout, but it’s often why.

It’s incredible to me that there’s no way to just produce the electricity and store it for later, for when you need it. Why isn’t that possible?

I know, it just seems completely amazing, doesn’t it? The main reason it’s not possible is because electricity is a force, it’s not a thing. You can’t stockpile it. What we do instead is we stockpile coal or natural gas. And that’s how we actually control how much electricity is produced at any given moment.

Or pumped storage. When you have extra electricity you pump water up a hill into an artificial lake and then when you need more electricity, you just let it run back downhill again. There’s no electricity in that lake, right? There’s water in that lake. But there is the capacity to make electricity later. You’re using electricity to make electricity later.

There’s thermal storage. For example, France is 75 percent nuclear power. You can’t turn a nuclear power station up or turn it down, it has to run at the same rate all the time. Yet people don’t use electricity at night, because they’re all sleeping. One of the ways that the French utility has dealt with this, is to make sure that all the hot water heaters in France heat up at night. So French people run out of hot water during the day.

Which I’m sure they don’t always love.

They don’t always love. But I think that it points to the fact that our relationship to electricity is also cultural. It’s not that everybody has all the electricity they need all the time and thinks that that’s actually how it should be. In France, they’re used to the hot water running out. And they’ll often say: “Oh, don’t take a shower, so and so already took a shower. Can you take one tomorrow?”

Why do power plants have to operate on coal and steam, why can’t they operate on something cleaner?

Power plants operate on steam because that’s how we started. We say a lot of bad things about coal, but the fact of the matter is, for the electricity system, coal is great. Human behavior can be however it wants to be, and we can control how much electricity is produced in order to meet those demands. You know, as much tea as you want to make, all as a nation, all together, or as much air conditioning as you want to use, right? Whenever you want to do it. The system is designed for that capricious consumption.

As soon as you have renewables, you can’t control that anymore. You’re introducing variability on the supply side. We’ve always had variability on the demand side, but now if you start to have a lot of wind or a lot of solar, you introduce variability on the supply side. And that means that you have to somehow control people in order to make sure that the grid remains balanced. And that is exactly the moment where you’re like: “Hey, could you get up at four o’clock in the morning and turn on your dryer?”

Let’s say you’re in Texas and the wind in Texas blows at night. You would have all of this electricity coming on to the system when you don’t have anybody using that electricity. And in fact, in Texas, sometimes the prices go negative. If you are a paper mill, that would be the moment that you would ramp up production, right? Because suddenly you’re getting paid to pull electricity off of the grid. And there is a utility in Texas actually that has free night time electricity for residential customers.

So it’s not just operational — there’s an economic problem around renewables too?

Yeah, normally electricity is produced at a wholesale rate as opposed to a retail rate. But when you produce solar from your own panel and you sell it back to the grid, you’re selling it back to the grid at the retail rate. That means the utility can’t make a profit on that. The more people that are making — I like to call it “homemade electricity” — the less money the utility is making, while still needing to maintain the system.

Plus, utilities have always billed people for things like systems costs, meters, taxes, billing systems. But when you have net metering, the customers making “homemade electricity” no longer pay for those charges, just the electricity itself. So they’re essentially getting a subsidy. Wherever early net metering contracts are still in force, there is no way for these customers to pay for things like line maintenance — even though they are still using the lines.

And that means that utilities have to raise the price per kilowatt hour on the people who aren’t making solar power, in order to not go out of business, essentially. This only becomes a problem at scale. If you have 10 people making solar power, it isn’t really an issue, but if you’re in Phoenix and everybody’s making solar power, or if the state decided that it would give some sort of rebate to people who are installing solar power, then suddenly all of these people put on solar, nobody is consulting the utility about it, they have all of this electricity flooding into their system during the day, no electricity coming in exactly when you need it, in the evening, and they’re losing all their revenue.

There are places where people have simply said: “We are not accepting anymore solar connections onto the grid.” That happened in Hawaii at one point. It happened in Vermont at one point. But solar is becoming mainstream, especially now in California. There’s a law that every new construction has to have solar installed on it. And that means that the utilities have to figure out how to deal with that. And they’ve also had to stop charging people by electricity use. And that’s been a big shift, to figure out how they can bill people not for how much power they use, but for other things.

It seems to me, then, that there are two things that are problematic about the economics of the grid, in terms of sustainability. One, utilities are incentivized to make you use more energy, and obviously in an ideal world we would all use less. And two, they’re incentivized to basically never use renewables, because the system is set up to be constant, and so coal is preferable. Is that right?

Yeah. Part of what we have to learn how to do is let go of this idea that we control how much electricity is moving onto the system and start thinking about other ways to balance it. Whether controlling people or figuring out storage.

The problems could actually be divided in two different ways. One is that variability is a problem for the grid, because it was designed to run on non-variable sources.

And also the culture of electricity use in the U.S. We were brought up in such a way that electricity would always be available to us. And that was part of the way that the grid was created.

The assumption, when the grid was first being made, was that government and utilities would work together, such that everybody could have access to electric power. And that that access would be to the same quality of electric power, at a fair price. And because of this idea of the universalization of electricity, there were 30 years in which consumption always did go up, because they were always expanding the grid to include new people. You have the 1920s to the 1950s, when you’re just, you’re still bringing people onto the grid. Your industry is growing, because you’re adding connections.

Then, in the 1950s, you get this boom in stuff. Then you’re not adding as many connections, because most people are electrified, but you get refrigerators, you get clothes washers, and you get all of these electrical appliances. The logic for 70 years of the electricity industry was that consumption would always go up.

When you think about the future of the grid, do you see it becoming more integrated into cities?

I think the thing that we see happening right now is that power production is moving much, much closer to where power is used.

You don’t want a coal burning plant in your backyard. When my grandma was a young mother in Chicago, she had to just wipe the coal dust off the table, two or three times a day. The fact that these coal burning power plants moved outside of cities was actually a net gain for the urban environment. It’s not polluting on your dinner table or in your kid’s lungs.

But solar doesn’t have that same effect. The electricity production is actually moving back in, much closer to where we use electricity again. And then you get different kinds of networks, a very small scale, stable micro-grid, a neighborly collective.

There’s a lot of these tests going on where essentially the goal is to bring generation back in, close to people, and also create communities of practice around these electricity systems.

I find this to be a very interesting model for the future. I mean resilience is the big word, right? It’s a much, much more resilient system.

This Sidewalk Talk Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.