GRID

Bill Gates recommended GRID as one of his five favorite books in 2016. Here is what Business Insider said:

“‘The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future’ by Gretchen Bakke

“The Grid” is a perfect example of how Bill Gates thinks about book genres the way Netflix thinks about TV and movies.

“This book, about our aging electrical grid, fits in one of my favorite genres: ‘Books About Mundane Stuff That Are Actually Fascinating,'” he writes.

Growing up in the Seattle area, Gates’ first job was writing software for a company that provided energy to the Pacific Northwest. He learned just how vital power grids are to everyday life, and “The Grid” serves as an important reminder that they really are engineering marvels.

“I think you would also come to see why modernizing the grid is so complex,” he writes, “and so critical for building our clean-energy future.”

My son received it as a Christmas gift, and stayed up all night finishing it. I ordered it the same day he told me.

Finally, a readable history of energy. Why does our grid look as it does?

The incredible role that Jimmy Carter played in the creation of the Department of Energy, the passage of two major pieces of legislation.
1. National Energy Act
2. PURPA

GRID traces the emergence of the California wind energy industry. According to the author, the industry emerged in spite of bad technology. The growth traced instead to enormous tax credits. The Federal tax credit was 25%, and California doubled it to 50%. Today Texas and California are by far the largest producers of wind energy in the US>

GRID traces energy from Thomas Edison to Thomas Unsall, who was his personal secretary. It was Unsall that formulated, and then implemented, an ambitious plan to centralize the nations power grid. Until he took over in Chicago, no one could figure out how to create, through government regulation and clever pricing, what today is an effective monopoly. What makes this even more remarkable: the monopolies are largely for-profit.

GRID traces the emergence of energy policy, beginning with President Jimmy Carter.

It includes the Energy Policy Act of 1978 and the Energy Policy Act of 1982.

Postscript: I just read the book a second time, and was stuck by its notes at the end, its index, and its general comprehensiveness.

I guess, for me, the big ideas in this book can be boiled down as follows:

LOAD IS DOWN: the planet is rife with innovations that are saving electricity – and most of them are coming without burden to the consumer (like turning thermostats down, wearing sweaters, etc.). So the demand for electricity peaked in 2007, and is unlikely to go higher until at least 2040.

GENERATION IS UP: At the same time, the ways to generate power better are increasing. Solar panels have dropped at least 50% in cost in a decade, while getting more effective. Wind turbines are excellent, and are continuing to improve. Coal generators are being slowly replaced by natural gas. Natural gas plants have desirable properties beyond generation, e.g. they can start up quickly and can come down quickly.

GENERATION IS BECOMING MORE RESILIENT AND MORE DISTRIBUTED. . After a decade of blackouts largely traceable to storms and poor line maintenance, the push is on for resilience, and it is working. The means to resilience is distributed generation (DG), which ultimately will prove to be very beneficial. However, because of regulatory roadblocks, perverse incentives, and a host of other complexities, it will be some time before the benefits of resilient DG are fully realized.

PREDICTING LOAD IS IMPROVING: Predicting load by five minute increments is improving. Smart meters and smart algorithms make it entirely plausible to predict load well 24 hours ahead, and extremely well 4 hours ahead.

PREDICTING GENERATION IS IMPROVING: the book tells horror stories about DG increasing instability and unpredictability. How can a utility plan for a surge due to a scorching sun? A big breeze? I find these horror stories to be suggestive of where this dysfunction will all end up, namely: prediction will improve dramatically through better weather forecasting, better detailed knowledge of all contributing generators.

A NEW MATCHING OF LOAD TO GENERATION IS VISIBLE. For all the horror stories, I think the future looks bright because matching predictable load to predictable generation is doable today, and will become a norm in the future once all the roadblocks are removed.

ASYNCHRONOUS POWER IS ALMOST HERE. Just as emails are asynchronous, while telephony is synchronous, in that same way, electricity has always been a synchronous technology – because there has never been a way of storing electricity. The world is moving fast toward asynchronous power because of batteries. When this happens, the world is going to change very fast.

TIME OF DAY PRICING WILL ACCELERATE ALL CHANGES. I am shocked at how pathetic time of day pricing is. Its ubiquitous – but pathetic. Once time of day pricing sends market signals about that discourage peak power use, so managers will take increasing advantage of using power (load) when it is cheapest, and avoiding power use (avoiding load) when it is most expensive, then we will begin to see thousands of innovative solutions for accomplishing this very simple goal.