Meredith Angwin

Energy Analyst & Author

A reliable electric grid

What kind of grid do we want? That can be a huge question. Nuclear energy: yes or no? Renewables: yes or no? In considering the grid we want, there are many areas for disagreement. In contrast, most people will agree that the lights should go on when you flick the switch. Reliability is important to everyone.  I am an older woman in snow country, and my furnace has electric controls. Clearly, reliability is important to me.

A reliable grid will be even more important in the future. If we stop using fossil fuels, electricity won’t just control our heating systems, electricity will be our heating system.  Almost all of us will use heat pumps. (The entire United States cannot heat itself by burning wood, though some fraction of the population can use wood products for home heating. Without fossil fuels, most of us will use some form of electric heating.)

My recent book is Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid. This book describes the causes of our grid’s increasing fragility: lack of planning, five-minute auctions, over-dependence on renewables and natural gas.  However, grid fragility also has consequences.  In my book, I don’t describe the consequences very much. It’s just one book, and it can’t cover everything. Reading Shorting, you will understand why our grid is becoming more fragile and how you can hope to change this in the future. In contrast, in this post, I want to follow the consequences of the fragile grid.

The fragile grid

Without being scary about it, Robert Bryce makes it very clear why we need a reliable grid, both in his book A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, and his movie Juice, How Electricity Explains the World. I recommend them both, very highly. He gives memorable illustrations of how people’s lives are changed by access to electricity (for example, in India), and the lengths that people will go to obtain reliable electricity (for example, in Beirut).

Robert Bryce recently interviewed me on the Power Hungry podcast. In the interview, Bryce kept the focus on the punchline of Shorting the Grid: Why our grid is fragile, and what we can do about it.

If you want scary, on the other hand, there’s another book, Powering Through: Building Critical Infrastructure Resilience, by a large group of authors. This is published through Infragard, an organization concerned with threats to U.S. infrastructure. Infragard evaluates threats (and responses to threats) to our electricity supply, water supply, and hospitals. Infragard thinks about things that (frankly) I am mostly too scared to think about. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI play lead roles in Infragard.

Electricity is the Mother Network

The newly issued Infragard book, Powering Through, is organized by infrastructure type, and the book asks the same set of questions about each type of infrastructure. The first question is always: “What happens to this type of infrastructure if there is no electric power?”

Yes. That is the first question, because electricity is the Mother Network.

When I say that electricity is the “mother network,” I am quoting Robert Bryce. In his endorsement of Shorting, Bryce wrote that “all of those networks (that we depend upon) rely on the mother network: the electric grid.” Indeed, we depend on it. And we need to manage it in a manner that leads to reliability. Five minute auctions, requirements for fuel neutrality, duplicative and contentious “capacity auctions”—-these do not promote grid reliability.

We can manage the grid for reliability.  We need to do so.