I’m back, with a book review

So I’ve been a bit busy getting my master’s degree, but for one of my renewable energy courses, I read a few books and did a few assignments that I feel I should share as they have helped me better understand the energy paradigm in the US. If the contents of this post feel a bit too out of context I do apologize as this was a paper written for a class.

The Grid: Review

The cover of The Grid manages to capture the essence of the book in such a way that the true genius only fully dawned on my once I completed reading. There are two layers to the cover that are highlighted by the subtitle of the book, “The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future.” The cover consists of a messy tangle of wires beyond which a bright blue sky sits. The metaphor is not subtle once you know what you’re looking at. The grid on the cover, as in real life, is somewhat of a mess and it feels as if the challenge ahead is going to be constricting. However, the blue skies beyond the mess provide a sense of hope beyond the current circumstances, which truly captures the essence of the author’s, Dr. Bakke’s, message.

Prior to addressing the various points and ideas addressed by Dr. Bakke in The Grid, I would be doing this work a great disservice if I did not discuss what made this book one of my favorite books I’ve read in my academic career. The tone in which this book is written and the author’s voice create a compelling narrative that enthralls the reader in a story with sprinklings of allusions to the historical and modern-day significance of key developments. The way that information is presented in this book beckons the reader to turn the next page with excitement and anticipation as opposed to dread through dreary half-open eyes. Dr. Bakke’s background is in cultural anthropology and her understanding of communication in our culture during an era of rapid social change commands the reader’s attention from the very first sentence to the very last. I can truthfully say that I enjoyed reading this book, not as a book assigned through the course of my studies but independent of all extraneous context. On its individual merits this is simply an enjoyable read. As a peripheral benefit to the tone and writing style of Dr. Bakke being easily palatable, after each day’s reading I found myself in active thought and reflection about the points presented by her. Additionally, I believe that my retention of the information presented will also be bolstered by the manner in which it was presented.

The organization of this book leads itself well to effectively convey the key points that the author wants to address. The introduction does provide a broad view of the problems we face in the energy sector, specifically the grid. Which should come as to a surprise to no one. However, the first chapter reads something the opening scene to a Marvel movies with secret agents meeting in an underground bunker to discuss top secret plans.  At least that is the impression that stuck with me. As the book continues the cinematic organization continues as the story flashes back to the history of the grid at the very beginning, from the first light bulb. Then the narrative is carried by a sequence of events as they happened in American history, with the ever-looming storm cloud of “where did it all go wrong?” that we are expecting due to the introduction. Chapter 4 finally addresses that question as we catch up to modern times, the oil embargos of the 20th century, the fragility of American energy production, and the onset of renewable production ushered into the limelight and profitability through legislative actions. The book continues to then go through 21st century examples of how 20th century infrastructure is starting to fail us as it was built with a 19th century outlook for the future. The grid was designed as a house of cards, and we are slowly witnessing the toppling in slow motion. Eventually you start thinking to yourself that all hope is lost, and we are destined to an increasingly fragile energy future, but then Dr. Bakke begins to present you with incremental solutions that can alleviate the woes of the modern-day grid and in time transform it into the grid of the future.

The Grid provided me with a much deeper understanding of the challenges facing energy production in the United States, and the now constant battle for utilities trying to stay in the black. I was and am a staunch supporter of renewables but as we move towards a greater dependency on variable energy production the need to take care of the middleman who delivers us our energy from our holistic cultivation method of choice. We do not pay for the transportation of electricity. We pay for the electricity we use that is more and more often being bought being bought by the utilities that supply it to us and less often produced at their own power plants. As energy sourcing diversifies and we utilize less of the utilities’ produced electricity the profit margins of the utilities dwindle away as costs level off or increase. The utilities are still the last large-scale defense against blackouts meaning that they have to pay for the expensive upkeep of the large fossil fuel burning energy plants that only need to be ignited during peak load on a few occasions each year. This couples with the wear and tear on the grid’s infrastructure and maintenance being put off for increasingly longer periods. At one point in the book Dr. Bakke discusses how utilities have forgone the recommended tree-trimming schedules and added years between trimming to save on costs and maintain profits.

This is not a point discussed by Dr. Bakke but the thought of “why are utilities a private company?” has lingered in my mind over the course of the majority of the book. Utilities functioned as regional monopolies since the days of Samuel Insull, who started what would become the first major utility in the United States. These monopolies were allowed to exist under heavy government regulation, including price setting. This heavily regulated business model portrayed many similarities to state-run businesses in communist nations, at least to me, with the individual utilities acting practically as extensions of the government with how little freedom they had to ebb from what regulations allowed. The grid is infrastructure that was created to be maintained under a specific cash flow structure and now regulations and deregulations are creating massive upheavals in that structure. So, I ask the question that was not addressed in the book is “why not treat the grid like other infrastructure in the US?” Now this point is not to nationalize all energy production, far from it. The point I bring up is why not let government maintain the non-income producing aspects of the grid like the high voltage wires and transformers. As Dr. Bakke points out, there is an ever-increasing number of customers that utilize the grid to sell their domestically produced energy, partially or fully offsetting their energy costs. With diminishing margins is it even a question as to how or why PG&E allows trees to grow dangerously close to their power lines? If society as a whole benefits from having access to the grid without everyone needing to purchase all their power through the grid, would it not make more sense to treat the gird the way we treat our nation’s roadways? Everyone benefits from and pays into the maintenance of the roads. To utilize a comparison that Dr. Bakke brings up in the introduction, lets use bananas as our example. We do not expect Dole to upkeep the roads that they use to ship their bananas to supermarkets.

The solution presented by Dr. Bakke is far more eloquent than my point, advocating for a smart grid of integrated smart technologies that can constantly communicate to one another to brave the dreaded peak load together as well as manage excess power production during particularly windy or sunny days. The point of utilizing electric cars as a form of energy storage and power source in the home struck me as particularly ingenious. But what is even more ingenious was the way that this idea was presented in the book. That is to say, the way in which Dr. Bakke presented her argument was not an ultimate solution that is the only true saving grace from our current energy woes but as an idea that can be improved; an idea with its flaws that she herself brings to attention and discusses. It is this last discussion at the very end of the book that you want to sit down and have with Dr. Bakke once you get to the final chapters. Armed with the knowledge of the previous few hundred pages Dr. Bakke provides the reader with a thorough understanding of the current state of the grid, the timeline of how we got there, and most importantly the culture that governs it. This last point is what separates The Grid from countless of other books I have read during my academic career. The entire book is not structured in such a way as to lead the reader to a forgone conclusion the author addresses at the end. Instead, this book provides a foundation of knowledge and presents many ideas for possible solutions, each with their own merits. Dr. Bakke does not hold your hand from point A to point B. She hands you a map and meets you at the end of your journey to discuss what she has seen while empowering you to have your own informed opinion about what you saw.

I have no association with or do not profit from sales of this book in anyway. However, if you are interested in this book on your own, please see the following link.

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