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Aging And Unstable, The Nation's Electrical Grid Is 'The Weakest Link'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. There's a lot of worry about fossil fuels these days. But our guest Gretchen Bakke says America does not run on gas, oil, coal or wind or solar power, at least not directly. Electricity, she says, is what powers most of what we use. And we're relying on an electrical grid that's increasingly unstable, underfunded and incapable of taking us to a new energy future.

From the 1950s to the '80s, significant power outages averaged fewer than five per year. But that's changed. In 2007, there were 76, in 2011, more than 300. And that may not be the grid's biggest problem, Bakke says. Renewable power sources have grown dramatically in recent years, but our aging electrical grid isn't capable of integrating them into our energy use, so much potential power is wasted.

One out of every eight homes in Hawaii is equipped with solar panels, producing more electricity than the state needs on sunny days. But the grid can't use or store all that power. In some states, utilities pay wind farms to shut their turbines down on blustery days because the grid can't handle the power surge.

Bakke doesn't argue there's enough available green energy now to run everything we use. But she says we won't reach our goals for renewable power use with the delivery system we have today. Bakke's book, which examines the history of electrical power and the challenges we face, is called "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future."

Well, Gretchen Bakke, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book is about this big, complex, you know, electric grid, and you're a cultural anthropologist, I mean, not someone who grew up, I guess, with a particularly technical background. What do you think you bring to this issue that another kind of person who spent years in electrical engineering might?

GRETCHEN BAKKE: I think that it's a funny thing that I ended up doing it. But the beginnings of it were actually cultural. Technological systems are cultural. They're formed by the ways that we interact with technology. The sorts of technology that gets invented and gets funded, actually makes it into our world, all of those decisions are about how people and financial systems, which are also cultural, interact with each other.

But the book itself came out of a trip home to see my parents in Oregon and noticing that there was this kind of shift of conversation - this was in the early 2000s - about blackouts. Like, they were happening more often, they were more thorough, they were lasting a little bit longer. And people were starting to lose faith - lose faith in their utility, lose faith in their electrical system and take these tiny actions toward making something like energy security for themselves.

And that really piqued my interest because I had never seen anything like that. This is just a thing - I think we see this with the crisis in Flint with the water supply system. There's just this given that the water is going to be drinkable and then suddenly it's not. And the shift of sort of mind or belief in a system that has always worked was what drew me in, that this system is so complicated and so intimate that in some way, I wanted just regular people like me to understand it.

And then the renewables began to flood onto the grid. After 2008, all of the statistics change. The amount of wind coming into our grid, the amount of solar power, big solar plants but especially rooftop solar, all of that started to change. And each one of - each time we change something about how we use electricity or how we make electricity, the grid has to adapt to that.

DAVIES: So let's talk about some of the issues that are affecting the grid today. We're seeing a lot of growth in alternative energy sources, a lot of wind generation, a lot of solar generation.


DAVIES: What problems do this kind of electricity generation from renewables present to the grid?

BAKKE: So the grid is a system that embodies the way we make power, the way we transmit power, so the wires, which is what we often think of, and the way we use power. So all of the machines that we have hooked into this electricity system, they're all a part of the grid. And anytime you change anything on one piece of that system, whether or not it's a lot of people using a lot more electricity at a certain moment in time or making that electricity differently or in different places, you change actually the grid itself.

And so what renewables do is that they shift this longstanding relationship between a very steady, controlled power made at the source. Which is to say with fossil fuels, with nuclear, even with hydro and biomass, you can control how much electricity is going into the grid by controlling the fuel source. And what happens with wind is that you can't control the fuel source and the same thing with solar.

So if the wind blows strongly, there's more electricity going into the grid. There's some adjustments now you can do to the wind turbines to try to even it out. But essentially, it's up to the wind. And with solar, it's even worse, actually, because for one thing, the sun goes down at night, so there's no solar electricity except for during the daytime.

And then every time - especially with rooftop solar, every time a little cloud goes by, all of the panels that are covered by that cloud dip in the amount of electricity that they're producing. And often, people who don't have solar systems on their houses don't realize that people with solar panels on their roof, they aren't making electricity for themselves.

All of that electricity is going into the grid. And so - and then they're - the electricity those people use is also coming out of the grid again. So every time a little cloud comes over Phoenix, for example, there's just a whole neighborhoods that the output of their electrical panels goes down. And that system has to really struggle to keep up with that.

DAVIES: Explain why that is. I mean, you have an electrical grid. You have a utility that's getting power from its nuclear plant or whatever plant. And then it's got - it's hooked up to wind turbines and solar panels. And when there's a drop in their production, why is that a problem for the utility?

BAKKE: Well, it's a problem for the utility because we don't actually have a good way yet to store electricity, not on a large scale. We have little - we have our little batteries in our telephones, for example. And so we think that we have electricity storage. But in fact for the grid, we don't. And there's a lot of people working on this.

This is, again, a part of that, like, excited moment in the grid is like, how can we store it? How can we store it? And there's crazy great ideas out there, crazy not great ideas out there. But a lot of mind power going into the problem. But for right now, effectively, we can't store - to a degree that's sufficient to be useful to the grid, we can't store electricity.

DAVIES: You make the point in the book that electricity - and there's a technical explanation for it. But essentially, the grid needs to have - to be producing exactly what is consumed all the time, right? I mean, so if there's a big variation of either supply or demand, it's a problem. And you describe being in a control room somewhere - I don't remember where - but where some technician is literally watching a gust of wind through weather charts move toward some wind turbines.

Describe what he was seeing and what that meant.

BAKKE: So he was talking about sometimes you have a gust of wind come over the Rockies. And from the Rockies toward the Pacific Ocean, there are all of these wind farms. And he could see the spike and production as that wind hit farm after farm after farm after farm after farm. So we could actually watch the wind on his screen.

And all of that power then needs to be absorbed by somebody using it somewhere. So part of his job is to figure out - to talk to the people to figure out how to ask, usually industry, to please use some more electric power 'cause you can see it coming.

DAVIES: You literally have to say, look, we have electricity coming in. We have to use it or it's going to do - what? - fry the wires?

BAKKE: Yeah, exactly. Too much electricity will destroy the wires. Normally what they do is shut off self-protectively. So they have basically a circuit breaker like you have at home that when things get too out of whack, they turn themselves off.

BAKKE: But what that means is that then there's - all that electricity is still on the other side of that - like, the wires have protected themselves. The electricity hasn't gone anywhere. It's just bumping around breaking things. So we do have to - we do absolutely have to use it.

DAVIES: So then when there's a surge of electricity, they have to - quickly have to find a way to find a user for it. What happens when there's a drop in electricity, when the wind stops blowing or the sun sets or clouds pass and the solar panels stop generating them? I've got a system. I was getting your electricity from these renewables, suddenly I don't. What does the utility do then?

BAKKE: Well, they have to - for the moment, what we do is we balance generation with generation. So we're getting a bunch of solar power, starts to get - be 5 p.m. The amount of solar power diminishes slowly and then stops from rooftop panels, and fossil fuel burners for the moment come on. So California especially, they balance solar with natural gas. In Germany, they balance wind with coal. And this leads to this very ironic situation where the places with the highest penetration of renewables also have greenhouse gas emissions which are going up.

DAVIES: And this is a fascinating thing that you describe where a utility will literally have an old plant running on fossil fuels - coal or diesel - and it sits idle until there's a decline in some other energy source. And then they fire up this expensive, antiquated, polluting equipment?

BAKKE: Exactly. Yeah, either a dip in another energy source or a big surge in use. So we usually use - they're called peakers, and we usually use them, for example, on a very hot August day when everyone turns up their air conditioning. So that's another case where the plants that are making electricity aren't making enough. And so these plants have to get turned on.

But you need all the coal sitting around to run them. You need the people sitting around to be called in to run them because they're complicated machines - giant complicated machines.

DAVIES: So if we - if the people, if the utilities, if the grid could figure out a way to manage all this renewable energy coming in and not have to have these old, antiquated plants at the ready, it would save a lot of money, effort and pollution, right?

BAKKE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And one of the things, for example, that Texas is doing right now, they have the highest amount of wind energy in the country. And they - their - Texas wind blows at night, so they've done two funny things. One is that there's one utility that just gives away electricity after 9 p.m.

So the electricity is free, again, because they need people to use it. So everybody at 9:00 p.m., everybody sort of stands up and turns on their dishwasher, right? It's like this way - it's this monetary way of controlling consumption. But the other thing that they're moving toward now is high - just bringing in a lot of rooftop solar because rooftop solar is obviously produced - producing during the day. So you can in fact balance renewables with renewables, but we're just starting to figure this process out.

DAVIES: So if a grid is getting electricity from big wind turbines and there's too much of it, sometimes they'll actually ask them to turn these turbines off when they're generating the most power. Why is that a problem?

BAKKE: Well, it's a problem because the utilities used to be a vertically integrated business, which is to say they owned the power generation, they owned the lines and they charged you - they were the ones who managed the bills. So they made the power, they transmitted the power, they took money for the power. What happened with deregulation is that most utilities now no longer own generation. In some places it's illegal for them to.

And that means that especially with renewables, people are building solar power plants and wind turbines wherever they can make a bunch of power. So they're putting them in the best spots, which is what they should be doing. Those best spots don't always have a lot of people in them. And they're often set up to make more power than we, in fact, use in any given moment.

But the construction process was highly subsidized by the federal government. And those subsidies only accrue if the turbines are running. So there is no incentive for the company who produces the wind power but does not own or manage the lines to turn off their wind turbines.

So you get these very funny situations where somebody who works for a balancing authority - which is the name of the people whose job it is to make sure that there's not too much electricity on the grid or too little at any given time - they'll call up a private enterprise and say excuse us, could you please turn your wind turbines off? And the enterprise will say, why would we do that?

DAVIES: Right. We spend a fortune to build these. Now is the time the wind is blowing, we can recover our costs...

BAKKE: Exactly...

DAVIES: And you're telling me...

BAKKE: ...Exactly.

DAVIES: ...To shut down.

BAKKE: Exactly. And that's where we see the grid as really this bottleneck between some sort of vision of a strong - a strongly renewable powered future and what we've got right now because it's the grid that is the weakest link - right - that we can make a lot more electricity than we can use. And we can make a lot more electricity than the grid can carry. But the grid is - you know, infrastructures change very slowly, and it's expensive.

DAVIES: Gretchen Bakke's new book is "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Gretchen Bakke. She has a new book called "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future." I want to talk about the early days of electricity and electric grids. They were small at first. I mean, individual houses would have a little power source on a little electrical grid, and then, you know, sometimes a business would.

And there's a fascinating picture in your book of a street in New York in 1888. And there are all these wires overhead but not like we're used to them where they're kind of clustered on utility poles. They're just scattered every which way over a street so that you can almost not see the sky. What was going on? What did this tell us about electricity and its use then?

BAKKE: Well, to start with the smaller plants, one of the things that has been constant throughout American history that I think has - was a giant fight in the middle of the 20th century is that people kind of like to make power privately. Americans like to have little power systems. So that was the preferred means of doing it back in the day, in the 1880s, was that rich people or factories, they would - or even transit companies - they would make their electricity locally. Edison had a little kit that you could buy, and they would come - Edison's men would come and they'd install it, and you had a little power plant, essentially.

And what this meant is that as these grids slowly began to grow, as people were trying to figure out how to make some money off of electricity, the systems doubled and redoubled because different uses of electricity - in the early days, we used something called direct current. And I do not need to go into this right now, but if you had - if you have a lightbulb or, let's say, a streetcar, you needed a different kind of push in order to make it work. And each of those systems had their own system of lines and their own generators.

So rather than having what we think of now as a grid, there were hundreds of grids, hundreds of overlapping electricity systems, and each of them had their own set of wires. And these companies were going out of business all the time, as well, and so they would just leave the wires up. And so it was just sort of this massive reduplication of wires until you start to see, in reports from the late 1880s, early 1890s, people just complaining in urban areas about how they couldn't see the sky anymore because there were too many wires.

DAVIES: So we ended up, for many decades, with systems where big utility companies kind of had no competition, but their rates were set by government regulators, presumably to keep them fair. Nobody really had a choice about where they got the electricity, but most of us didn't complain about it. And you say by the 1970s, utilities had ceased to live and function in the real world. What do you mean?

BAKKE: Kind of all of the excitement from this - the period right before the Great Depression - when the electricity industry was very innovative, nobody really knew how to do anything. And so it was all kind of getting worked out on the ground - grew into, over time, a great stagnation. And part of the reason for that is that the period of expansion, which is first during the Depression, Roosevelt's plan to get electricity to everybody actually change - like, that was a big project for the utilities and also for the government. So that took a lot of time and energy, employed a lot of people.

Then there was the boom in the 1950s of things that we use electricity for, all of these household appliances. And again, this was, in most cases, a utility ploy, in fact, to make us use more electricity 'cause the more we use, the more they actually make. That became slowly this kind of guaranteed profit that they had because they always made a profit on every - every time they invested money, they got a return on that money.

DAVIES: So in the 1970s, you have a chapter called The Cardigan Path, referring to Jimmy Carter in his cardigan sweaters. It was sort of emblematic of a change in our whole attitude towards energy use. You want to just talk a bit about what happened and what it meant for the utilities?

BAKKE: Yeah, I mean, I think the - there was a lot of care about conservation that came in in the 1970s because of the oil embargoes. People started to think of energy, especially gas, but energy in general as something that might be scarce, that making all of the things we live with causes pollution. We said we - there was acid rain, there was smog, there was sort of this - there was Love Canal. There was sort of this rising awareness that there were ramifications for consumption. And that meant that people began to try to consume less...

DAVIES: Right, so they were...

BAKKE: ...Which was...

DAVIES: ...Selling less of what they needed to keep themselves financially healthy.

BAKKE: Absolutely, and it was a shock. I mean, that was the thing about the stodginess of the companies, that it was just a surprise because electricity use had always grown. (Laughter) Like, it had just always grown. Like, everybody had always used more, and the idea was we would just always make more. We'd build more power plants. We'd have more stuff. We'd make more electricity. We'd use more electricity. It was just this - it was this perfect industry.

DAVIES: And - yeah.

BAKKE: On the Monopoly - I just want to say this - on the Monopoly - people who play Monopoly, like, the first thing you do is buy the railroads and the utilities, right, because you're always going to make a profit on them. And that's what it was like. Like, until 1968, 1972, that's what it was like.

DAVIES: Gretchen Bakke's book is "The Grid." After a break, she'll tell us how untrimmed trees touched off a blackout in 2003 that cut power to 50 million people. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We're speaking with Gretchen Bakke, author of the new book "The Grid" about the aging infrastructure that moves our electricity. She writes that regulatory changes after the energy crises of the '70s put financial pressures on old electrical utilities that maintain the grid and that would lead to trouble.

The electricity industry had changed. It was a new regulatory situation. The people who used to make the power now primarily were people who maintained the grid and transmitted electricity. And the grid, of course, is what keeps it all moving. And this connects to the increase in blackouts and brownouts. And you talk about the big one in 2003.

And it's kind of interesting to hear how it actually started. This is the one that cut power to, like, 40 million Americans in the northeastern United States. It starts in Ohio with a tree, right?

BAKKE: Right. There's sort of two ways to tell the story. There's the proximate causes and then there's the underlying causes. The proximate causes were three overgrown trees and a computer bug. And the overgrown trees - the utilities, one of the things that they're required to do is to keep the trees cut under the wires. And again, though we talk often about terrorists and various scary things hacking the grid, the greatest threat to the electric grid right now in the U.S. is actually foliage.

And tree cutting is something that utilities manage. It's not - they have a schedule but it's not enforced. And so when they started to make less money, one of the first things they did was to start to cut trees less often. So this is what happened in Ohio is that they changed their treat cutting schedule. And the wires, when they get hot, they sag.

And that's just a property of metal. And so it was a very hot day. The wires sagged down and they made contact with tops of these trees. And that just takes the wire out of commission. So we have a lot of duplication. So a wire goes out, and that's fine. But when you have three of them go out, it begins to be a problem.

There's not enough duplicate lines to keep moving electricity around in the way that it should.

DAVIES: And what actually happened is that electricity arched from the wire to the tree and then...

BAKKE: Right.

DAVIES: ...The circuit breaker shut it down, so it moved to another line and...

BAKKE: Yeah, in this case, I'm actually not sure if the circuit breaker shut it down or if the line itself died (laughter). It sort of committed suicide because an electrical arc is essentially lightning. And the great story with that first tree is that there's a kid who's home, 18-year-old kid, and he's got smoke coming out of his outlets, like, in his house.

And he's like, what is this thing? So you just don't want - it's basically the grid going wild, right? Like, you have to...

DAVIES: Tell the rest of the story about the kid.

BAKKE: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Doesn't he go out and then run into a utility guy?

BAKKE: Yeah, so there's this great story about a kid who is 18 years old. His house is underneath this first wire that arcs. And he hears this giant bang, and smoke starts coming out of the outlets. Like, his dishwasher stops working. And he runs outside, and there's actually a tree cutting team just across the street. And they just yell at the kid. They're like, get out of here.

Like, essentially, the electricity system has gone from being domesticated to being wild, which means that it's not helping us anymore. It's shooting lightning out of the wires onto the trees. And they're also getting out of there. And they were later cleared. Like, it was really just happenstance that the tree trimmers happened to be there at that time.

There was a big investigation 'cause that seemed very suspicious but, in fact, pure luck. But this then happened three times. And normally what would happen at that utility is that the screens would start to - there would be buzzers and there would be red warning lights and people would start to do things.

DAVIES: In the control room of the utility, right?

BAKKE: In the control room of the utility to get the grid back into some kind of balance. But they had this tiny computer bug - they just updated their software the night before - that turned the alarms off. So they didn't know. That slowed the refresh rate on their screens, and they just didn't know anything was wrong. That's why the blackout got so far advanced before they had any idea that anything had gone awry.

And the only reason they did know is because people were calling them up on the edges of this sort of great shifting mass of electricity. It's not quite a blackout yet, but current is moving around on the ground in ways that it shouldn't. And it looks like a tsunami. Like, it's just, like, these crashes of current going from one side of the system to the other.

So they're getting these phone calls of, like, hi, excuse us, we don't really understand (laughter) what's going on.

DAVIES: These are calls not from citizens, right? These are from the neighboring utility...

BAKKE: From utilities.

DAVIES: ...That says, oh, my God, we're getting surges here. What's happening, right?

BAKKE: Right, and they're like we don't know. Nothing's happening. Our system is fine. And then after a certain number of these calls, they realize their computers aren't updating. And then there's a certain point about 15 minutes before the blackout actually starts where they start answering the calls by we understand there's a problem. We'll get back to you.

So you can see this sort of in the transcript of the control center.

DAVIES: And so these sort of - these huge waves of changes in - what? - voltage lead to these cascading sets of reactions in utilities all over the East Coast, and we have a terrible, terrible problem.

BAKKE: Right, and different utilities sort of managed it in different ways. So the utility which is just to the west of FirstEnergy, which is the Ohio utility that had this problem, they saw it early and they were like, we're just going to disconnect from you. Like, you guys don't know what's going on. And that actually formed the western edge of the blackout.

New York state, what they saw was all of this electricity getting sucked out of their system into Ohio. And they're like, what's that? And then it came crashing back. And electricity moves at the speed of light, right? So it's not exactly that fast on our terrestrial electrical system, but it's immediate. So it's out it goes, back it comes crashing in. And they did the same thing.

New York state said, there's something wrong. So they also shut themselves down. But what that meant is that this island that they created out of themselves, they were making too much power for the people in New York to use. And so all of their systems shut down automatically, self-protectively.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Gretchen Bakke. Her book is "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Gretchen Bakke. Her new book about the electrical grid is called "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future." I want to talk a little bit about some of the ideas that would solve some of the bigger problems here. We have this issue that utilities have trouble dealing with all of this renewable energy that's being generated by wind and solar and then various other ways. And one thing that would make a huge difference would be is if we could take that power that's generated that we don't need at a particular moment and store it. And there's really, hardly any grid-level storage, right? We store power in batteries for computers, but we don't have anything at the grid level that does it very well.

There are some ideas here. Some of them, actually, I was surprised to read, are actually in operation some places. You want to tell us about a couple of these compressed air and salt domes? I don't know - that's one.

BAKKE: Yeah, so there's - there are a lot of ideas about how we could set aside electricity. And we use the word storage, but you never store electricity. You - electricity storage means you use electricity to do a thing that when you reverse - or create a process that when you reverse it, you get electricity out. And, ideally, the amount that goes in and the amount that comes out are roughly matched. So the thing we do the most often in places where there are hills is we use excess electricity to pump water up a hill into an empty reservoir and then when we need more electricity, we just let gravity pull it back down and run a turbine at the bottom. There's no electricity stored. There's water stored.

DAVIES: Energy storage, yeah, yeah.

BAKKE: Yeah, so - and the battery is the same. It uses electricity to set up a chemical reaction that when you reverse it electricity comes out again. So that's the principle of storage. And there is a lot of ways you can do it. You can do it physically. You can do it chemically.

There's a train right now that they're building in Utah. It's called the Sisyphus train, and, essentially, it works like pumped hydro but without any water because Utah doesn't have enough extra water. And it's just this very heavy train that they use excess electricity - solar power, especially in the middle of the day, push that train up a hill. End of the day, the sun goes down, down rolls the train. You know, just gravity again pulling it down, and it generates an electric current. It's designed to generate an electric current on the way down.

And then salt domes, which we have in Alabama and we also have somewhere else I believe, in Utah. In - under Alabama and Mississippi, they were originally used for storing toxic chemicals...

DAVIES: These big, big caverns under the earth, right?

BAKKE: Big caverns, yeah, that you can - you can work with them to store stuff safely. The ones in the West we were going to use for natural gas storage before we realized how much natural gas we actually had in the U.S., and we didn't need to store it at all. We could just keep pulling it out of the ground. But, yeah, you can basically pack a salt dome with air. And so you use a power plant to - a coal - usually, it's a coal-burning or a natural gas combustion power plant to pack a bunch of air - compress a bunch of air into the salt dome during the night. And then during the daytime, when demand is much higher than at night, you let it - you can let it out and it spins a turbine.

And so there's also a different time scale to each of these things. So compressed air is every 12 hours. You compress, you let it out. You compress, you let it out. So it's a - it's a 24-hour cycle of compression and release. With the Sisyphus train or with pumped hydro, you can leave it, you know, at the top of its hill as long as you want.

A lot of solar power plants now, the big ones, they have what's called molten salt storage. And, essentially, they use all the heat of the sun to burble salt, to boil salt. And that salt stays hot enough to generate electric power for about four hours after the sun goes down, and that's great. It gets us from 5, 6 p.m. to about 10 p.m., which is when we stop using electricity because everybody goes to bed. We don't stop completely, but it just goes way down how much power we actually use. So there's a lot of - you know, there's a lot of ideas like this in the mix. Los Angeles is putting in a giant battery.

But the - in a way, like, there's a kind of conservative feel to these. And I think that, as I was finishing up the book, they were kind of the great future. Like, this was the hope is that we would have - we would have - we figure out storage and then we could put as many renewables on the grid as we wanted, and it would all work OK. And we wouldn't have to use these old coal-burning power plants, for example.

DAVIES: And it sounds like there's a big but coming (laughter).

BAKKE: Yeah, there is a big but coming (laughter). What storage does effectively is it allows the grid to continue to work according to the logic of the 20th century, as opposed to actually beginning to move or be more flexible in taking into account the variability of production and also the variability of use. So with advanced computing, we should be able to create an infrastructure which is not so grounded in we say when we want power, we let that power go when we need power - all very command and control and sort of slow and steady wins the race. There's another route, and I feel like it's beginning to emerge into consciousness largely in the Scandinavian countries.

But there are people in the U.S. that are sort of pushing in this direction, too, which is to say why don't we think with electricity - what - how electricity works really well? Why don't we think with what people want, which is sort of small power systems? Why don't we think with the grid, instead of always going back to this very easy-feeling, 20th-century way of doing things?

DAVIES: That sounds really intriguing. Give us an example of what it looks like.

BAKKE: Well, I mean, the funniest example is this old 1880s DC power. So direct current power that doesn't go very far, but it didn't need to because you could - you just use it for a tiny, little system. That's the kind of electricity that is made actually by wind turbines and by solar panels. So the grid for the 20th century, it ran on alternating current because alternating current allows for a giant system that's all sort of interlocking. We're all a big part of it. It's sort of part of the nation building of the 20th century.

DC current just wasn't any good for that. But what you have now is a lot of people who want to put solar power - panels on their homes, and they also want their houses to have the electricity on when there's a blackout because right now if you have solar panels, if there's a blackout, you blackout, too. And that's frustrating to me...

DAVIES: Because your energy is going...

BAKKE: ...Like, I make my own...

DAVIES: That's because your energy's...

BAKKE: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Going to the grid and not to your stove, right?

BAKKE: And not to your stuff, right, exactly. And so there is some talk, both, about very small storage, so home-size storage, which could be - there's these new power-wall battery packs. They used to just use car batteries. But you can - they're sort of a shiny Tesla product that you can buy now to store electricity for your house. Or if people have electric cars, technically, they can use their electric car batteries to store electricity for their house.

But to think about the - to think at this very, very small scale - and when you start to do that, then suddenly DC becomes an interesting current again because our electronics, they run on direct current, and our solar panels, they produce direct current. So why take the electricity coming out of a solar panel, change it to alternating current, and then - which - where you lose - it sort of decreases the efficiency of the system because you lose power in that process - and change it back to DC again to use it?

So this would be an example of, OK, if we think with the grid, and we also think with the kinds of systems that people want, what would that produce? I'm not saying that it's - it would be complicated because we don't actually have that many engineers these days who know how to build DC power systems (laughter). But It's a curious thought experiment just to imagine - not a grid of - sort of atomized, but a grid where people for the most part produce their own electricity, but they're still hooked into something larger. You don't want a grid that doesn't serve everyone, right? You don't - you need - everybody needs to have high-quality electric - access to electricity. But it can be done differently.

DAVIES: Is there enough renewable energy to meet our needs?

BAKKE: I think that this idea - the idea that with either zero or we've failed needs to be put aside a little bit to say, what would it look like if we could get to 80 percent? How would we have to revive - what would we have to do to the system in order to get to 80 percent renewables - because once we can do that, then we can look at and say, how do we get to 90 percent - as opposed to this sort of we're going to completely eliminate any kind of fossil fuel, leave it all on the ground, and we're going to run all on renewables.

The upside of renewables is that they can for sure make more electricity than we need. There's not - there's not a shortage problem. There's, in a way, an excess problem. But that is not - that's not the issue. That's in part why I feel like this book actually matters is because it's not about generation. That's not the end of the story. That's the beginning of the story. And the rest of the story is about the ways in which we use that power, the ways in which we transmit that power, the ways in which we care for that power, we store that power or we don't store it, we balance it - all of these grid-related sort of human questions.

So, yes, absolutely, I think it's absolutely possible. But let's get to 50 percent. Let's get to - I think 80 percent - by the time we get to 80 percent renewable and integration, we are going to have confronted all of the big problems that are facing us right now.

DAVIES: Gretchen, thank you so much...

BAKKE: Yeah...

DAVIES: ...Really fascinating book. Good luck with it.

BAKKE: Thank you. It's really - it's lovely to speak with you because there's a degree of professionalism which is an absolute pleasure, so...

DAVIES: How nice of you.

BAKKE: Yeah, thank you.

DAVIES: Gretchen Bakke is an assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University. Her book is "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future." Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews two new works by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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