The Grid

This morning, I finished reading The Grid by Gretchen Bakke. It is a fascinating read about the past, present, and the future of electricity. 

Following are a few excerpts from the book: 

The subtle-seeming transition in the structure of circuitry, from series to parallel, was the grid's first revolution. Though we tend to give Thomas Alva Edison the credit for having invented the lightbulb (he did not), he did devise something just as remarkable - the parallel circuit, one of his greatest, if least lauded contributions to technological underpinnings of our modern world. 

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. 

California might have been the planetary center of wind energy in the mid-1980s, but their turbines were more machines for churning out visions of greener futures than actual watts. 

America's first turbine engineers were aeronautical engineers who had opted out of working for Vietnam-era helicopter companies. As a result they designed their turbines with floppy flexible blades based on the aerodynamics of helicopters. It turns out that the blades you need on a helicopter are the exact opposite of the ones that make for a successful wind turbine. 

The Danish hippies, with their small, flat, wind-swept country, had the same idea, and if Americans were mostly trained as engineers, the Danes were former blacksmiths. They had a totally different relationship with metal. They spent their time fixing large farm equipment so machinery was their model. 
[I went to Denmark for the first time in 2004-2005 to see windmills in the ocean.] 

As California's native wind industry was faltering by the end of the 1980s, Denmark's was surging forward, and they colonized the world differently, spreading wind power first to Spain before jumping back over the pond to Texas, Iowa, the Dakotas, and eventually back to California, which in 2015 with 6,018 megawatts of installed wind was the second largest wind-power-producing state in the country, just after Texas with 15,635 megawatts, or 10% of its in-state generation. [California is no longer second]

The US Electric Grid Today (photo from 2024 San Francisco Climate Week)

The grid is not just a technological system. It is also a legal one, a business one, a political one, a cultural one, and a weather-driven one, and the ebbs and flows in each domain affect the very possibility of success of any plan for its improvement. If the integration of systems across domains, especially the irritating bits, cannot be made to flourish, the problem will be not with the machinery we use or the technology we govern, but with us. 

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