Book Review: "The Grid" by Gretchen Bakke

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, by Gretchen Bakke, is essential reading for anyone looking to join the conversation on North America's energy industry. In order to discuss how we produce or consume power we must think about the electric grid and how it facilitates the transfer of electricity from source to user. To achieve the renewable energy goals we have set for ourselves, we need to reinvent the aging system we use to deliver it.

Bakke, a cultural anthropologist, analyzes the grid's development through a social lens because as she states in an interview with NPR, "technological systems are cultural. They're formed by the ways that we interact with technology." In her book, Bakke first lays out the minimum amount of physics necessary to understand the quirks about electricity that constrain the methods in which it can be transmitted, and thus the ways our grid can be built. She then takes the reader through the manufacturing history of the electrical grid, beginning with its inception in the late 1800's, and profiles the individuals that brought it to market. Next, she narrates the government legislature and regulation that shaped the utility industry into a stale ecosystem unequipped (and non-incentivized) to innovate the grid's complex machinery.

Once she has detailed this monstrous "largest machine ever made," she connects the reader through a topic with which most of us are all too familiar: blackouts. Bakke presents several character stories of people who are fed up with the unreliability of their power supply and have turned to their own measures of energy security, or are learning to live without it. Frustratingly, and illustrative of the grid's fragility, she says that most power outages are caused by seemingly innocuous things such as overgrown trees, squirrels chewing through the wires, human error, weather or computer glitches. The vulnerabilities present in these diverse forms drives home the point that everything is connected.

On top of the existing issues, the addition of renewable energy to the system pushes our grid to the breaking point. The essential differences in how energy is made between fossil fuels and renewables pose a threat to our fragile infrastructure, of which many parts are more than 50 years old. To move forward with our clean energy goals we must rethink our grid, but rather than a one-size-fits all revolutionary solution, we likely need a patchwork of solutions. Bakke argues that rather than "hardening" the grid, we must make it more flexible, to account for the unforseeable changes and advancements in technologies, and closes the book with a discussion of our options.

The Grid is a one-stop resource to bring anyone up to speed on the national energy conversation; Bakke tackles all of these topics and more in an entertaining and readable manner. Purchase The Grid here and start thinking about your personal and our collective energy future. To better manage your own energy consumption, contact