“City of the Future” is a podcast that explores ideas and innovations that could transform cities. In this episode, hosts Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk explore the future of electrification with Gretchen Bakke, author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, and Sidewalk Labs’ director of sustainability Charlotte Matthews. The following is an edited transcript of the episode.
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Vanessa Quirk: At the turn of the 20th century, life in cities around the world changed in a profound way, all thanks to a new invention: electricity.
[Sound of sparks]
Eric Jaffe: It didn’t happen all at once. In 1900, only 2 percent of American homes had electricity. So the U.S. government gave utilities the green light to build huge power plants to electrify the entire country.
Vanessa Quirk: In a span of 50 years, America went from 2% electrified to 80 percent. And then by 1955, just five years later, 99 percent of American homes had electricity.
Eric Jaffe: But that expansion caused a problem for the utilities. Because once every home had electricity, the only way they could make more money was if those households used more electricity.
Vanessa Quirk: So over 300 utilities banded together to launch a campaign: Live Better Electrically.
[Music clip with lyrics: “You can make your families lives much brighter / You will find your work much lighter / It’s as easy as it can be / When you live better electrically!”]
Vanessa Quirk: The biggest player in the campaign was General Electric. They used the host of their TV show, “General Electric Theater,” to show off how electricity could improve your life.
[Clip of GE Theater: “Tonight, we’re going visiting at the Ronald Reagans again in their new home to see how their many wonderful electronic servants are helping them, just as they’ll help you live better electrically.”]
Eric Jaffe: GE decked out the California home of future governor Ronald Reagan with all the gadgets electricity could power.
[Clip: “With the steady heat and the exact timing of my new automatic skillet, even a souffle is easy and safe to make! My electric appliances do everything. You really begin to live when you live better electrically.”]
Vanessa Quirk: As part of the campaign, the utilities also launched the Gold Medallion Home program, which provided literal gold medallions that people could proudly place in front of their electric homes.
[Clip: “This medallion, the mark of beauty, comfort, safety, and convenience in electrical living.”]
Eric Jaffe: The Gold Medallion homes were heavily marketed as a modern, yet affordable, living option. The message: The more electricity you use, the cheaper it is!
[Clip: “Electricity is today’s biggest bargain, steadily increasing in use, and steadily going down in average unit cost.”]
Vanessa Quirk: By 1970, almost a million American families were living in Gold Medallion homes.
Eric Jaffe: But by the turn of the 21st century, electricity costs became less predictable, often surprising Gold Medallion homeowners with a huge bill.
Vanessa Quirk: Gas, on the other hand, was cheap and reliable — even if it was worse for the environment. And so today, many houses use gas to power not just our stoves but our heating and cooling systems too.
Theme music starts.
Eric Jaffe: Gold Medallion Homes might be a thing of the past. But for the good of the planet, the all-electric home must make a comeback.
Vanessa Quirk: Welcome to “City of the Future”, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs.
Eric Jaffe: Each episode, we explore an idea or innovation that could transform cities.
Vanessa Quirk: We’re your hosts, I’m Vanessa Quirk.
Eric Jaffe: And I’m Eric Jaffe. In this episode, we’re thinking about an idea that could prepare our cities for a more sustainable future.
Vanessa Quirk: Affordable electrification.
Vanessa Quirk: The all-electric home was all about encouraging homeowners to consume more and more.
Eric Jaffe: There just wasn’t any concern for efficiency — and certainly not for sustainability.
Vanessa Quirk: But today, electrification holds the key to both.
Charlotte Matthews: As a society, we are overly reliant on fossil fuels for our energy supply.
Upbeat music begins.
Eric Jaffe: That’s Charlotte Matthews, our sustainability expert here at Sidewalk Labs.
Charlotte Matthews: No matter how efficient a gas car or gas burner becomes, they will always emit carbon as an output of the combustion cycle. Electricity, on the other hand, is already clean in many places and generally getting cleaner everywhere. So by coupling wind power and solar power and nuclear and hydro with storage, like batteries, electricity can basically get down to zero carbon, while fossil fuels can never get there. Which means, at a minimum, any new development should be fully electric to set us up for that cleaner future.
Vanessa Quirk: Ok, so let me just make sure that I’m following this. So let’s say that I have two houses.
Charlotte Matthews: Uh-huh.
Vanessa Quirk: And I have one house that has the natural gas furnace.
Charlotte Matthews: Yeah.
Vanessa Quirk: And then in the other house, I have this electric heat pump. So why is the house with the heat pump house more sustainable?
Charlotte Matthews: Well, the house with the gas furnace, that gas furnace has about a 20-year lifespan. So over that 20-year lifespan, it is pumping out carbon emissions. While the electric heat pump, which is hooked up to the power grid that’s getting cleaner and cleaner, you’re going to be contributing far fewer emissions, particularly as we move into the future. Because there’s a path to getting to carbon zero with electricity that doesn’t exist with fossil fuels, we should be investing in clean, green, electric infrastructure.
Upbeat music ends.
Eric Jaffe: There’s a term to describe this pathway to carbon zero. Beneficial electrification.
Charlotte Matthews: Beneficial electrification is electrification for the purposes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by getting away from fossil fuels.
Vanessa Quirk: Just beneficial for the environment?
Charlotte Matthews: Yeah, to the extent that we can electrify, or rather, to the extent that we can green our electricity supply and then electrify, that is a real strategy toward a green economy and way of life.
Eric Jaffe: In order to achieve beneficial electrification, we have to green our electricity supply. But what does that take?
Vanessa Quirk: Well, to find out, I reached out to an expert who gave me some insight into a piece of infrastructure that you and I interact with every single day. A little something called “The Grid.”
Gretchen Bakke: I’m Gretchen Bakke and I’m a professor of anthropology and I wrote this book called, “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future,” Which sounds like a snooze fest, but is actually very exciting.
Gretchen Bakke: It’s been called a thriller for nerds, which is my favorite comment anybody has ever made about it.
Vanessa Quirk: To start off — I mean, the grid. I think most people understand that there is a grid, it exists, but they don’t necessarily have a picture of what the heck that means. So, I mean, is it a real grid? What are we talking about exactly here?
Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, it’s funny that it’s called the grid, right? Because it’s not gridded.
Vanessa Quirk: Hmm.
Gretchen Bakke: It’s really a giant sort of mass of machines that produce electricity. So, power plants. Big, high-voltage wires that bring electricity from where those power plants are to people. And then a low voltage network, which is the one we normally see — the wooden poles that they have in neighborhoods. And then it 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 actually 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 your toaster.
Vanessa Quirk: Are you suggesting then that my toaster is actually part of the grid?
Gretchen Bakke: Yes. The toaster is absolutely part of the grid. And if you push down your toaster, what you’re saying to the grid is, “Look, there’s an easy way over here.”
Vanessa Quirk: So, when I’m pressing down on my toaster, what I’m actually doing is opening up a little doorway for the electricity?
Gretchen Bakke: Exactly. You’re opening up a little doorway that is like not super smooth, because 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.
Gretchen Bakke: The thing that has to be said, which is completely impossible and totally true, is that the amount of electricity that’s being produced has to equal the amount of electricity that’s being used.
Vanessa Quirk; Wait — so, that means the grid has to be balanced all the time? But how does it know when I buy a new toaster?
Gretchen Bakke: [Laughs] Right.
Vanessa Quirk: Like, how does this miraculous system figure out that, “Yeah, there’s more things coming on!”
Gretchen Bakke: Right. So the system as it used to be before we started to introduce renewables, there were a couple of data points that…let’s just say…they’re mostly guys, so I’m going to say guys — that the guys who ran it, the utility guys who ran it, had what season it was, how many people lived on their system, and what the average use had been the year before.
Vanessa Quirk: Okay.
Gretchen Bakke: So, 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 we have a lot of air conditioning. But you could do it, statistically, you could figure out how much, at the time of day, you needed to be producing in order to cover the needs of the people who were there. And what you see are voltage swings. And some of them are predictable, right? Like, the sun starts to go down and electricity use goes way up.
Vanessa Quirk: Right.
Curious music begins.
Vanessa Quirk: So it sounds like we humans are pretty predictable creatures when it comes to energy! I mean, at least in the aggregate.
Gretchen Bakke: Yes, for example, in England, when there’s a soccer match, there’s often a giant surge in electricity at the very end. 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.
Vanessa Quirk: Ah! That’s so British. [Laughs]
Gretchen Bakke: Right? Exactly, it’s so British! But at the same time, like, there’s a real worry that the grid will actually crash, because there will be so much demand, so that what you’ll get is a blackout, right? And that’s peak demand. And so, yes, indeed, you do have to bring on power plants that would normally not be running in order to cover these four minutes of English people making tea.
Vanessa Quirk: So peak demand then is just the technical term for the times of day when tons of people are using power at the same time? Kind of like rush hour for electricity?
Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, absolutely. It used to be, before we really had computers and before we had a lot of competition and before we had the energy crisis of the 1970s, the grid had this like, very stable three or four decades. And during that time, there was I think 15–20 percent extra capacity. So if there was a really hot day, there were all these power plants that could get turned on. And as competition and different rules of economics enter 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 it does now happen that we’ll have a blackout simply because there isn’t sufficient capacity.
Vanessa Quirk: But what about all these new sources of power? Like solar and wind? I mean, doesn’t that help us add capacity?
Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, so there’s a financial problem for the utility, which is that the more people that are making, sort of, I like to call it homemade electricity, right?
Vanessa Quirk: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Gretchen Bakke: The more homemade electricity you have going onto the grid, the less money the utility is making, while still needing to maintain the system. If you have ten people making solar power, this isn’t really an issue, but if everybody’s making solar power, then suddenly all of these people put on solar, nobody’s consulted 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, which is in the evening. The biggest use is in the evening, right? When all that solar starts to not be useful anymore.
Vanessa Quirk: Right. So basically renewables — they complicate things because they don’t provide the power when we need it and we’re used to a system where we have power, whenever we need it.
Gretchen Bakke: Yes. It points to the fact that our relationship to electricity is also cultural.
Gretchen Bakke: For example, in France, all of the hot water heaters, they heat up at night. So French people run out of hot water during the day, which is something that doesn’t happen to Americans. And they’ll often say, “Oh, don’t take a shower, you know, so-and-so already took a shower. Can you take one tomorrow?”
Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs]
Gretchen Bakke: Because they know that then there’s not going to be any hot water. The system is designed in the U.S. for this sort of like capricious consumption. And actually encouraged consumption, right? And then the idea was it would always supply enough power to meet that demand. Part of what we have to learn how to do is start thinking about other ways to balance the grid.
Eric Jaffe: OK, I get that we have to start thinking big about how we can balance the supply and demand of electricity. But if we start electrifying everything, and developing whole new all-electric neighborhoods, demand will just go through the roof!
Vanessa Quirk: Mmhmm, and this is a huge problem that Charlotte and her team are thinking about, especially for this Toronto project that we’re working on. How will all the electric appliances and the electric cars and the electric buildings have energy when they need it? And you know, there is one obvious answer, I guess, which would be, you know, “Let’s just build up a ton of more power plants!” But there’s a very big problem with that solution.
Eric Jaffe: You mean, apart from the fact that it’s the opposite of beneficial for the planet?
Vanessa Quirk: Right, it’s not beneficial for the planet and it’s not beneficial for your wallet either. Because if utilities have to pay for all these new power plants, then that means higher electricity bills for you and me. So Charlotte and her team have come up with a strategy for Toronto that’s aimed not at increasing the supply, but rather, at bringing down demand.
Charlotte Matthews: Our aspiration is that the neighborhood of Quayside in particular generates no GHG emissions through its use of energy, but that the electricity bills are not increased as a result of that.
Charlotte Matthews: So we created this term affordable electrification, which builds off the existing term beneficial electrification. Our focus through all of this is about eliminating energy waste and then managing the peak demand to keep energy bills down.
So first, we really reduce the heating cooling demands of the buildings by putting in very efficient systems and most importantly, a very efficient envelope. So we’re using Passive House principles to design our buildings which makes them really well insulated.
Eric Jaffe: Right — an efficient envelope meaning that the buildings would have airtight construction so that no heat could leak out of them.
Charlotte Matthews: Yes, and then we also have a thermal grid. So for instance, we’re capturing heat from the wastewater from the buildings. And that heat can then be harnessed for us for domestic hot water production, as well as heating in the winter.
Eric Jaffe: OK, so we have plans to eliminate energy waste and create cleaner energy. But let’s get to this idea of managing peak demand.
Vanessa Quirk: According to Charlotte, the key to reducing peak demand is changing the way electricity is priced.
Charlotte Matthews: Utilities are paid for delivering electrons, and so they either get paid more based on selling you more electrons or on the capital investments that they make and that is generally new wires, new transmission lines, new distribution lines, more. But in the future, the business model should be that utilities make money based on how well they manage demand and carbon emissions.
Charlotte Matthews: We’re proposing that the cost of power actually changes in a dynamic fashion based on how much power is being used on the grid.
Vanessa Quirk: So from a consumer angle, I think this dynamic pricing would mean that you pay more when energy is more expensive for the utility to provide slash more unsustainable.
Charlotte Matthews: That’s right. You’ve got to actually have the price of power track with demand on the power grid.
Vanessa Quirk: OK, so like, this makes sense to me. It’s like instead of a fixed price, it’s like surge price, and the surge price doesn’t just represent price, but how clean my energy is. But I’m also thinking that could actually be pretty complicated. Because if I don’t know when this price is surging, my utility bill could kind of accidentally go through the roof.
Charlotte Matthews: Right, we believe that we can provide a predictable utility bill with a Home Scheduler, as we call it.
Vanessa Quirk: The home scheduler that Charlotte and her team are developing is like a digital assistant. It would talk to your thermostat, to your toaster, your TV.
Eric Jaffe: And it would know how much energy you’re using at a given time and how clean the energy is at that moment.
Vanessa Quirk: And you’d see all of that on a simple app. So, if I want to save money and also be, you know, energy responsible — I would say that I want my bill to be, I don’t know, like let’s say, $100 a month. How does the Home Scheduler help me keep to that $100?
Charlotte Matthews: The system will learn when in order to meet that energy budget, something in the home has to change, something has to be turned off or the thermostat has to be adjusted, and the person is given an option. And the person would then say, “Okay. Actually, turn off the television. I wasn’t watching it anyway.” The interactions will likely be more often in the beginning as you’re getting feedback and the Home Scheduler is learning the preferences of the resident, and then over time it should probably fade into the background, and if there’s absolutely no interventions, then the Home Scheduler could prompt, “Do you want to reduce your energy budget? “ At which point the person may be like, “No, thanks, this is good.”
Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs]
Charlotte Matthews: Or they may say “Yeah! Let me save ten bucks more a month!”
Vanessa Quirk: OK, but what if I’m only home at peak times? It would be really hard to stick to a low budget in that scenario, right?
Charlotte Matthews: Right, exactly. There’ll be people who are home during that time who are vulnerable to high utility cost and thus, we want to insulate them from that high cost of power, by giving them the opportunity to buy shares in the community-sited battery and solar. In the same way that not everyone can put a solar array on their apartment roof and own a piece of it, not everyone can fit a battery in their home and all the electrical infrastructure that would go along with that, and so we can actually centrally-site large batteries and large solar and then offer people a share of that battery. So it’s as if they have batteries in their own home, but in fact they’re owning a piece of the centrally located battery.
Dreamy music begins.
Eric Jaffe: So if your budget includes a share of this local battery, then you can rely on that battery if you’re home at a peak time. I mean, for example, if you want to override your Home Scheduler and run your dishwasher at a peak moment instead of really late at night.
Vanessa Quirk: In this way, batteries will help reduce demand on the grid. And for cities to hit their sustainability and affordability goals, batteries are going to be critical piece of infrastructure.
Charlotte Matthews: Batteries are the future because they’re enabling you not to size infrastructure to meet the peak. During the times that the infrastructure is not being fully utilized, at night, when power has low GHG emissions and it’s inexpensive, you can actually charge your batteries and then deploy them during the peak time, so you don’t have to build all the generation capacity and all the transmission and all the infrastructure to meet that peak demand.
Vanessa Quirk: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. It’s the sustainability and the efficiency coming together.
Charlotte Matthews: [Laughs] That’s right.
Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs]
Dreamy music ends.
Vanessa Quirk: The last big breakthrough in batteries was lithium-ion technology. That was about 28 years ago. But major advances in battery seem to happen about once every three decades — so we’re ripe for a new one.
Eric Jaffe: Battery start-ups and community batteries are popping up all over the world. Of course, it stands to reason that as the cost of batteries goes down, you are going to start seeing them everywhere.
Vanessa Quirk: In fact, we just got one in our office in Toronto. Did you know that, Eric?
Eric Jaffe: I do now.
Vanessa Quirk: [Laughs] Well, I actually just got to go see it.
Playful music begins.
TK Gesner: Let me see if I can get in here. [Sound of bottle dropping] Here we go.
Vanessa Quirk: Woo!
TK Gesner: That’s all of it.
Vanessa Quirk: I see phone jacks and wires…
TK Gesner: I know, there’s not a lot of razzle dazzle to these. [Laughs]
Vanessa Quirk: There’s not much to it in looks, but in what it does, it’s kind of neat.
TK Gesner: Exactly. It does the coolest stuff though.
Vanessa Quirk: That’s TK Gesner, the Associate Director of our Toronto workspace, 307. He showed me the new batteries hanging up on the wall, connected to the solar panels set up in the parking lot. And on the beautiful day that TK showed them to me, they were soaking up the sun.
TK Gesner: All the cells are collecting right now and of course, this is a bifacial installation so it’s collecting energy from topside and bottom side as well.
Vanessa Quirk: Do you know like how much electricity the battery can store?
TK Gesner: Off the top of my head, for sure, we’d have a day’s worth for the appliances that we have connected to this battery. So, we have those appliances set up in our main hall as well. There’s a washing machine, a dryer, and two small vacuums, one of which is a robot. All of them can be charged on this system.
Vanessa Quirk: And if we had more solar panels, could we use the battery, you know, not just for the appliances but as backup for the whole building? You know, on a cloudy day or if there was a power outage or something?
TK Gesner: That’s the idea. Exactly right. We would want to store that energy in the battery so that if anything happened to our power supply here, we could rely on it to carry us through. Think of this battery and this installation as the first step towards the future here at 307. Having the entire building powered, or at least with backup power on these batteries, and potentially with the ability to serve power back to the grid.
Playful music ends.
Vanessa Quirk: TK’s last point is really important — batteries, like the one at 307, could one day serve power back to the grid and help provide cities with the clean electricity that they need. But…we’re not quite there yet.
Curious music begins.
Eric Jaffe: Today, more communities and cities are installing solar panels and batteries, but they’re plugging them into the same old grid we’ve had for decades. A grid that wasn’t designed for them.
Vanessa Quirk: But cities and regulators around the world are currently working towards new business models for electricity. And a new business model would make it possible, like Charlotte imagined, for utilities to focus on reducing demand, rather than on building new infrastructure.
Eric Jaffe: And that kind of model would actually help us get to a new kind of grid.
Vanessa Quirk: A grid that incentivizes utilities to let communities create as much local, home-made electricity as they want. So that they can do their part in the fight against climate change.
Eric Jaffe: A grid that’s sustainable and efficient. That’s all about less, not more.
Vanessa Quirk: A grid that would let you live better, yes…
Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk: [in unison] …electrically.
Curious music ends. Theme music begins.
Eric Jaffe: Thank you for listening to City of the Future, a podcast from Sidewalk Labs. Your hosts are Vanessa Quirk and me, Eric Jaffe. We are produced by Benjamen Walker and Andrew Callaway.
Vanessa Quirk: Mix by Zach Mcnees. Special thanks for this episode go to: Gretchen Bakke, Charlotte Mathews, TK Gesner, Rebecca Craft, and Chris Edmonds.
Eric Jaffe: Our art is by the great Tim Kau. Our music is composed by Adaam James Levin-Areddy. If you want to hear more of Adaam’s work, you can check out his band, Lost Amsterdam.
Eric Jaffe: See you in the future.
Vanessa Quirk: Bye!