Review: Maggie Koerth-Baker on the future of the electric grid

Maggie and Me

Maggie Koerth-Baker and your humble author.

On Wednesday, May 2, Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor of BoingBoing.net and author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, gave a talk on U.S. electrical grid for the Berkeley Science Review‘s Spring 2012 Seminar. Throughout her talk, Maggie used examples from history to provide insights as to the grid’s likely future. Maggie is an anthropologist and journalist by training, and her background informed the approach that she took to understanding the energy industry. The talk seemed to be optimistic and realistic in its approaches, but most importantly focused on the true reality of handling the global energy crisis: the effectiveness of an electrical grid is driven not by power sources but by distribution systems.

According to Energycustomerservice.co.uk, the origin of these systems can be traced to Edison’s earliest grids in New York, where teams of engineers perfected the technologies necessary to safely and reliably deliver electricity to consumers. That wasn’t where Maggie started her story, though. Instead, she began by talking about Appleton, Wisconsin. In 1882, Appleton became home to the world’s second electrical grid when H.J. Rogers bought the rights to Edison’s technology (though none of the technical expertise) and proceeded to electrify the town. Though the town generated more renewable electricity than it needed from Rogers’s mill’s water wheel, this didn’t mean that an effective grid existed. Among other things, the voltage and current in the grid varied enormously throughout the day, one effect of which was to rapidly burn out every (at the time very expensive) light bulb in H.J. Rogers’s house.

Despite Appleton’s struggles, early local electrical grids expanded and met, eventually forming the national electric grid. But the challenge of providing steady power to the grid remains. Today, grid operators stationed in enormous control centers communicate with power plant operators and major consumers of electricity (e.g. factories), giving updates on the state of the grid and instructions to increase or reduce their generation/consumption. If the balance between electricity supply and demand cannot be maintained, the results can be rolling blackouts (if there is too little power) or shunting extra power to massive banks of resistors that bleed off extra power as heat (if there is too much power).

The current system relies on the predictability of commercial and residential electricity consumptions and the capacity of power plant operators to react quickly to moderate output. The problem is that many renewable energy sources, like wind or solar power, cannot modulate their output with the same agility. What’s more, as individuals increasingly become generators of electricity (e.g. owners of home solar arrays), overall demand becomes less predictable.

Despite these challenges, Maggie was optimistic about the future of the electrical grid. She believes that solutions lie in improving the electrical distribution system. One key will be integrating large batteries into the grid, allowing power to be stored and redistributed as necessary. Another will be deploying smart meters (and smart appliances) in households across the country. Smart meters both enable the smooth integration of individual power generation and allow grid operators to control local power consumption. For example, appliances that only need occasional power (like refrigerators or central heating systems) could be shut off for a minute or two at the behest of grid operators to modulate the demand for power in the grid.

Maggie pointed out that for every major shift in the technology of our electrical backbone, there has been a trail of the bodies of corporations that attempted to commercialize it and failed. For innovators, the scale of the electricity grid is daunting, and only when economic realities necessitate it do large power companies really start to change their ways. Nonetheless, a big change is underway right now and, win or lose, the process is going to be fascinating.

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  1. It’s amazing how much work is going on behind the scenes to make sure the power is on all the time.

    If advancements in technology in all other sectors are anything to go by, there are sure to be some great advancements in electrical grid management over the coming decades.