cover image The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future

Gretchen Bakke. Bloomsbury, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-60819-610-4

The omnipresent but seldom-noticed apparatus of electricity supply is in conspicuous upheaval, according to this interesting but scattershot history of America’s grid from Bakke, an assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University. She recounts the evolution of the grid from thousands of small-scale generators into giant utilities and explores the phenomena that she contends are now nibbling that model to death: environmental regulations, deregulated electricity markets, burgeoning wind and solar sectors, rooftop photovoltaics (PV), microgrids, and squirrels gnawing on transmission lines. Her lucid, accessible discussion is clear-eyed about the pitfalls of these developments, and she adopts a supportive, populist tone in discussing them as ways for folks to take control from centralized electricity monopolies. Unfortunately, small mistakes (rooftop PV is not “producing three times more electricity in California than are central station solar plants”—quite the opposite) and large misinterpretations (“big, expensive power plants... aren’t needed much, if at all, anymore,” she writes, though they still generate almost all U.S. electricity) undermine confidence in her judgments. Her tour of faddish green-energy doctrine—Amory Lovins is frequently invoked—makes an argument for the cultural inevitability of change, but the practical case for reinventing the current centralized grid, that triumph of collective provisioning, feels weak and ill-supported. Agent: Susan Rabiner, Susan Rabiner Literary. (July)