The Grid | Gretchen Bakke

Summary of: The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future
By: Gretchen Bakke


Welcome to the captivating world of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke. This summary dives into the fascinating history of the U.S. electricity grid, its development, and the struggles it currently faces. Delve into the early stages of power distribution through parallel circuits, and learn about the visionary Samuel Insull and the dream of monopolizing the electricity industry. Uncover key events such as the oil embargo and the Energy Policy Act that have left lasting effects on the grid. As we explore present-day challenges like aging infrastructure and the controversial concept of smart grids, prepare to gain insights into possible solutions and a more resilient electric future.

The Power of Electricity

Electricity has revolutionized the way we live, and its impact on society is immeasurable. The first electric grids came online in the 1870s with the invention of the battery-powered light by Father Joseph Neri. This breakthrough sparked a major transformation, and by 1879, San Francisco had its own lighting grid. However, early grids were linked in a series, causing a system-wide blackout if one bulb malfunctioned. Thomas Edison’s discovery of electricity taking all available paths led him to invent the parallel circuit, avoiding this problem. By 1892, streetlights wired in parallel circuits began to proliferate, and the power of electric light was ubiquitous. The ability to work longer hours enabled companies to do more business, and this led to economic growth worldwide. The power of electricity continues to be embraced today, powering homes, businesses, and even electric cars. It’s difficult to imagine life without it.

The Emergence of the AC Power Grid

The discovery of alternating current (AC) in 1887 revolutionized the power industry by enabling the transmission of electricity over long distances and the creation of a more extensive power grid. Prior to this, independent electric systems owned by various entities left cities entangled in a web of wires. AC’s ability to transmit high voltages with smaller losses through transformers made it possible to supply power to cities several miles away. One example is the Cataract Construction Company, which built a power plant at Niagara Falls in 1891 and supplied electricity to the city of Buffalo, 20 miles away. The invention of AC was a game-changer as it paved the way for the modern power grid system we rely on today.

The Challenge of Electricity Storage

In the late 1800s, businessman Samuel Insull aimed to create a monopoly in the electricity industry, but he faced a unique challenge: electricity could not be stored. Unlike oil and steel industries, power plants needed to generate enough electricity to meet the highest demand at all times, even if that demand only occurred at certain times of the day. This led to power plants being underutilized during non-peak hours. Insull devised a solution to this challenge, which will be discussed in the subsequent part of the book. During this time, the US was dominated by monopolies such as Standard Oil Trust, American Tobacco, and AT&T. With over 1,000 municipal electricity companies in the country by 1907, Insull saw an opportunity to establish a monopoly, but faced a unique obstacle due to the nature of electricity.

Insull’s Monopolization of the Electricity Industry

The book narrates how Samuel Insull, facing a storage problem, discovered that building a massive, diverse customer base is the solution to inefficient power usage. To attract a broad range of customers, he cut down the prices drastically, leading to a significant increase in customers. Insull continued to diversify by selling off-peak electricity to industrial customers, enabling him to achieve economies of scale. Although the average price per unit sold dropped significantly, Insull increased his overall revenues due to the surplus electricity he sold. Other companies soon adopted Insull’s strategies in their respective states and cities, ultimately leading to ten holding businesses monopolizing the American electricity industry by the 1920s. But, unfortunately, the monopolization didn’t last.

The Inefficiency of Coal-Powered Plants

Coal-power plants’ technology peaked at 50% efficiency, with most plants only running at around 30% efficiency due to the laws of physics and expensive maintenance costs. In an attempt to increase efficiency, electricity companies moved towards oil in the 1950s and 60s but were hit by the oil embargo in 1973, causing petroleum prices to skyrocket. This led to electricity companies raising their prices, resulting in dissatisfied customers.

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