In her new book, The Grid, Gretchen Bakke argues that the underfunded power grid is not capable of taking the United States into a new energy future. According to Bakke, the United States does not run on gas, oil, coal or wind or solar power. Rather, it runs on the electricity those energy sources create, and that electricity is being delivered to homes and industry via an electrical grid that is increasingly unstable, underfunded and unreliable.
Consider that from the 1950s to the 1980s significant power outages averaged fewer than five per year. In 2007, there were 76 power outages, and in 2011 more than 300. Perhaps even more disconcerting is that even as renewable power sources have grown substantially in recent years and promise to be ushering in a clean-energy era, the aging electrical grid is not capable of integrating them, meaning a lot of 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 cannot use or store all that power. In some states, utilities pay wind farms to shut their turbines down on blustery days because the grid cannot handle the power surge.
Bakke argues that we will not reach the federal government’s national goals for renewable power use with the delivery system we have today.
“The grid is really this bottleneck between some sort of vision of a strong renewable powered future and what we’ve got right now, because it’s the grid that is the weakest link,” Bakke says. “We can make a lot more electricity than the grid can carry. But the grid is infrastructure, and infrastructure changes very slowly, and it’s expensive.”
This article was excerpted from the National Public Radio program Fresh Air.