Friday, December 30, 2016

Book Review: The Grid

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future
Gretchen Bakke

This is a really interesting book about a hugely important and largely invisible subject. It's full of ideas that should make you stop and think. A trivial example: pretty much every single watt of electrical power you are using right now--battery power excepted--was something else a fraction of a second ago. It was a lump of coal or a gas flame or a gust of wind. Electricity, unlike (say) water, is consumed the instant it's used.

That makes the electrical grid an extraordinarily daunting piece of infrastructure. In Gretchen Bakke's argument, the grid that we have is a historical accident: centralized power production was not designed in, it just happened (for business reasons more than technical ones). More to the point, The Grid is an extend argument for rethinking the grid--specifically, for decentralizing it, for making it possible to use power near where it's generated, and for making the whole thing much more resilient.

The argument seems to me to be a good one. Some of the ideas in here are really clever. (That Tesla roadster isn't just a vehicle; it's a battery, meaning it can be used to store energy that's generated during the 90% of its life when you're not driving it.) How well some of these notions will work in practice is a harder question, and how to get there is harder still. At minimum, some people need to think very very hard about incentives--there are far too many horror stories about perverse incentives in The Grid--and probably come up with some kind of massive multiplayer simulation. 

The Grid isn't for anyone who thinks engineering and engineering policy are intrinsically boring. Other than that, I'd recommend it widely. It's well written, it's not too technical . . . and it's important.

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