Simanaitis Says

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AMERICA’S POWER GRID is the largest in the world. But it’s not the most modern, nor the most reliable. Gretchen Bakke’s book The Grid addresses these points and others. Cymene Howe reviews this new book in “Power to the People,” in the July 22, 2016, issue of Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

One of the book’s observations has already been cited here at ”Power Quants.” Electricity is unique as a commodity in that, once produced, it must be used within a millisecond in one way or another. That is, large-scale storage of electricity is neither particularly economic, nor technically efficient.

Yet, as Science reviewer Howe observes, U.S. energy policy effectively equates electricity with bananas. And they’re old bananas, at that. Bakke notes that the first operational electric grid was in 1879 San Francisco, 17 years before the better-known Niagara Falls plant went live.

Bakke identifies how nascent 19th-century electrification enhanced the use of fossil fuels in more than straightforward ways: The Niagara facility led to lower costs of aluminum, and this, in turn, encouraged this energy-intensive material’s uses in airplanes and automobiles.

Those of us of a certain age remember “Reddy Kilowatt” promoting electrical consumption, not conservation. He told us, “I wash and dry your clothes, play your radios. I can heat your coffee pot./I am always there with lots of power to spare, ’cause I’m REDDY KILOWATT!”


Reddy Kilowatt, 1926–c. 1980.

In time came environmentalism, the 1978 National Energy Act and then the Energy Policy Act that deregulated the electricity industry. Science reviewer Howe notes that these regulations forever changed the industry’s business model, not to say Reddy’s role as its pitchman.

“In the past,” Howe says, “utility companies made money by generating and selling electricity. Now they earn profits by transporting power and trading it as a commodity. This leads to a conundrum: Companies can’t upgrade existing technology without putting themselves out of business, but they also can’t afford not to.”

Science Magazine

Macro issues include aged infrastructure overwhelmed by growth and complicated by regulation. On the micro level, consumers have privacy concerns when traditional electric meters in their homes are replaced by smart interactive ones.

The terms “micro” and “nano” show up in modern grid design. A microgrid is a community’s source of electricity that can be operated autonomously for optimal efficiency. A nanogrid performs this function within a single building or facility.

The book is filled with such tidbits: As another, Bakke cites that 70 percent of gasoline used in military field operations is dedicated to transporting other gasoline around.

There’s also wonderful irony in noting that stereotypical “off-the-grid” communities, post-hippies and survivalist types, have a lot in common with the U.S. military. Both seek electric power in gridless locales.

A neat book that I must read. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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