Maggie and Me

On Wednesday, May 2, Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor of 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.

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.