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

by Gretchen Bakke
 

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America’s electrical grid, an engineering triumph of the twentieth century, is turning out to be a poor fit for the present. It’s not just that the grid has grown old and is now in dire need of basic repair. Today, as we invest great hope in new energy sources--solar, wind, and other alternatives--the grid is what stands most firmly in the way of a

Overview

America’s electrical grid, an engineering triumph of the twentieth century, is turning out to be a poor fit for the present. It’s not just that the grid has grown old and is now in dire need of basic repair. Today, as we invest great hope in new energy sources--solar, wind, and other alternatives--the grid is what stands most firmly in the way of a brighter energy future. If we hope to realize this future, we need to re-imagine the grid according to twenty-first-century values. It’s a project which forces visionaries to work with bureaucrats, legislators with storm-flattened communities, moneymen with hippies, and the left with the right. And though it might not yet be obvious, this revolution is already well under way.

Cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke unveils the many facets of America's energy infrastructure, its most dynamic moments and its most stable ones, and its essential role in personal and national life. The grid, she argues, is an essentially American artifact, one which developed with us: a product of bold expansion, the occasional foolhardy vision, some genius technologies, and constant improvisation. Most of all, her focus is on how Americans are changing the grid right now, sometimes with gumption and big dreams and sometimes with legislation or the brandishing of guns.

The Grid tells--entertainingly, perceptively--the story of what has been called “the largest machine in the world”: its fascinating history, its problematic present, and its potential role in a brighter, cleaner future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
05/23/2016
The omnipresent but seldom-noticed apparatus of electricity supply is in conspicuous upheaval, according to this interesting but scattershot history of America’s grid from Bakke, an assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University. She recounts the evolution of the grid from thousands of small-scale generators into giant utilities and explores the phenomena that she contends are now nibbling that model to death: environmental regulations, deregulated electricity markets, burgeoning wind and solar sectors, rooftop photovoltaics (PV), microgrids, and squirrels gnawing on transmission lines. Her lucid, accessible discussion is clear-eyed about the pitfalls of these developments, and she adopts a supportive, populist tone in discussing them as ways for folks to take control from centralized electricity monopolies. Unfortunately, small mistakes (rooftop PV is not “producing three times more electricity in California than are central station solar plants”—quite the opposite) and large misinterpretations (“big, expensive power plants... aren’t needed much, if at all, anymore,” she writes, though they still generate almost all U.S. electricity) undermine confidence in her judgments. Her tour of faddish green-energy doctrine—Amory Lovins is frequently invoked—makes a argument for the cultural inevitability of change, but the practical case for reinventing the current centralized grid, that triumph of collective provisioning, feels weak and ill-supported. Agent: Susan Rabiner, Susan Rabiner Literary. (July)
From the Publisher

"The Grid is a lucid and thought-provoking book." - Wall Street Journal

"Bakke describes the grid as far more than towers and wires . . . She leads readers through a history of the grid and a maze of financial, legal, regulatory, and environmental considerations with sprightly good humor . . . Finally, Bakke sketches a possible design of the ‘intelligent grid’ of the future . . . A lively analysis." - Kirkus Reviews

"Hopefully, Bakke’s startling exposé revealing how electricity sloshes around the country across a precarious grid will be a wake-up call." - Booklist

"Gretchen Bakke shows that everything is, indeed, connected. If we want a cleaner energy future, we're going to need a smarter grid." - Elizabeth Kolbert, author of THE SIXTH EXTINCTION

"A remarkable achievement. Bakke deftly shows us how a system most of us are happy to ignore--the electrical grid--is both inseparable from everything we think of as civilization and on the verge of complete failure." - Paul Roberts, author of THE END OF OIL and THE IMPULSE SOCIETY

"If you want to keep your lights on, read The Grid. This is a smart, deeply reported, poetic book about how electricity moves through our lives (and why it sometimes doesn’t). It's a journey through the nervous system of the modern world, one with profound implications for climate change, national security, and ensuring America’s well-lit future." - Jeff Goodell, contributing editor Rolling Stone, author of BIG COAL

"Gretchen Bakke dives deep into the history of the electric power grid . . . The Grid is full of rich detail across a wide range of energy-related topics." - Science

"The revolution that impacts every American may not be televised, but, thanks to Gretchen Bakke, it is being written, and written in an extraordinary way. This book tells the compelling story of the invention that has powered the American economy unlike any other, and which was named by the National Academy of Engineering as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. What will our future become as we transform it?" - Rye Barcott, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Double Time Capital, a clean energy investment firm

Kirkus Reviews
2016-05-18
A primer on the challenges facing a power industry in transition.Electricity is like no other commodity. Because there is still no way to store it on a large scale, the electricity we draw from the grid must be produced at that very moment. Production was easy to control when all electricity came from large plants burning fossil or nuclear fuel, but the rise of renewable energy sources has thrown these arrangements into chaos since renewables provide "an inconsistent, unpredictable, variable power that nothing on our grid is prepared to adapt to, the grid itself least of all." In her debut, Bakke (Anthropology/McGill Univ.) describes the grid as far more than towers and wires. It is "a machine, an infrastructure, a cultural artifact, a set of business practices, and an ecology," the result of a Progressive-era combination of business incentives and government regulation, designed for the exact opposite of 21st-century needs. The author keeps the physics and tech talk to the minimum necessary as she leads readers through a history of the grid and a maze of financial, legal, regulatory, and environmental considerations with sprightly good humor. Bakke's analysis is confident and evenhanded; she delivers harsh judgments equally on myopic utility companies, uncomprehending legislators and regulators, and simplistic advocates of renewable energy production for poor planning, lack of vision, and failure to anticipate the consequences of their actions. She covers the causes of blackouts—most often trees and squirrels—and suggests that rather than hardening the grid, we need greater incorporation of microgrids to make it less susceptible to damage and minimize the impact on consumers when disasters happen. Finally, Bakke sketches a possible design of the "intelligent grid" of the future that uses widely distributed, small-scale generation and storage options to provide resilient and reliable sources of power. A lively analysis of the challenges renewables present to the production and distribution of electricity.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781608196104
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
07/26/2016
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
13,822
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.40(d)

Meet the Author

Gretchen Bakke holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Cultural Anthropology. She has done research on several failing nations, including the Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and Cuba. She is a former fellow in Wesleyan University’s Science in Society Program and currently an assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University. Born in Portland, Oregon, Bakke lives in Montreal and calls Washington, D.C. home when she’s in the United States.

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