A book report on a recent non-fiction book that I read and enjoyed.

Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26073005-the-grid


The Grid gives historical context and basic info on America’s electrical grid, and the problems that are ahead of it if we want to transform our grid into using green, renewable energy. It’s an interesting look at a system I never really thought about, and the problems the grid faces are complex and interesting. However it is also a pop-sci style book, with both the pros and cons of that genre.

What is the book about

The Grid is a non-fiction book written to explain America’s electrical grid. It was included in Bill Gate’s “My favorite books of 2016” as an honorable mention, which is where I heard of it ( https://www.gatesnotes.com/about-bill-gates/holiday-books-2016). Given that my living relies on computers, and therefore by extension the electrical grid, I figured I should learn more about it.

The author starts the story in the time of Edison and Tesla, following how different inventors, sellers, and accountants worked to build out profitable electrical grids. She follows the evolution of the grid, starting with individual micro-grids sold to companies and the rich, to the slow collection of power that led to functional-monopolies, and finally to the slow splitting up of power (both electrical and not) that is happening today.

Once the ground-work of explaining the grid is done, she then moves to following major blackout incidents, in order to see what happened and why. A lot of the reasons why we have had black-outs at the scales we have is mainly because of the complexity and monolithic architecture of the grid, so one thing out of whack can have a cascading affect on everything else. Most of that complexity comes from the electrical grid system actually being a combination of physical systems, regulatory requirements, and for-profit companies. This leads to a lot of situations where the different groups are in conflict with each other, and the good of one group leads to problems for the others.

For example, one of the black-outs she follows is the Northeast blackout of 2003 ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003). It was triggered by a large tree being too close to power lines. The tree was only there because the utility company in charge of that line hadn’t cut back trees around the power lines as often as they said they would. They didn’t do this because they were trying to cut costs to continue making a profit. They needed to cut cost because legislation had taken away some of their guaranteed income from government subsidies and loans, and they were now required to pay out to smaller power plants that were on the grid but not owned by the utility. And after the initial incident happened, the problem was compounded by a race-condition in the local utility’s software that prevented them from seeing the problem before it cascaded to everyone else. It is currently the largest black-out for the united states, and affected 55 million people ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_major_power_outages#Largest). All because the incentives for the groups involved were not aligned with the needs of consumers: to keep the lights on.

She also talks about some of the issues with how the grid is currently built, if we want to incorporate more renewable/green energy. Since the book was written in 2016, I imagine the future technologies that she mentions have been either brought to fruition or petered out, but they’re still interesting concepts. A lot of it seems to rely on making the grid more “smart” by adding computers at end points and nodes in the grid, in order to track and level out energy use in real time. This is needed because, as of her writing, there were still no viable, grid-level storage systems, which means any energy we want to use has to be produced at the moment we want it, not stored and then sent out on the grid later.

This was one of the most surprising things I learned while reading. I had simply assumed any electrical grid at the size we have in the US would require ways of storing electricity for peak use times. Instead, utility companies just spin up more power plants when needed. This can be an issue, since these power plants need lead time to start up in the first place. Most people don’t want to lose power for 5 minutes right when they get home because a coal plant needs to start up. This has caused a lot of pressure on the utilities to develop more and more sophisticated forecasting models. However, with “smart” endpoints, utilities and homeowners could make the end points actually use less energy at peak times (e.g. turn down the AC when everyone is using it), as well as setting up smart appliances to run during low-usage times (e.g. running your roomba at night), minimizing the peaks and valleys of energy usage. In this way, we’d be getting around the lack of grid-level storage by making everyone use the same amount of energy all the time.

She also mentions some interesting ideas for new grid-level storage systems, but a lot of them just weren’t feasible, since they were in the weird situation where everyone would love to have them, but no one wants to pay for them. The one fun example she gives is building out an artificial “mountain”, made up of concentric rings. At low-usage periods, the extra electricity is used to pump water into a hydraulic system, slowly pushing the rings up into the sky. At high-usage periods, the water is slowly released from the mountain into generators, making new electricity to cover the peak period, causing the rings to slowly lower. As amazing as that sounds, the amount of red tape and costs will probably prevent that great idea from ever coming into existence (though I hope it’ll come to be, how cool would it be to see a random mountain rise and fall over the course of a day?!)

Like many popular science books, she relies heavily on the idea that adding more computers and “smart” things to the grid will naturally make the whole thing better. As a software engineer, that just concerns me more than anything else. I do agree with the idea that building out a more distributed grid can prevent the fragility of the current, centralized grid, but with caveats. Changing the systems in place to a more distributed, smaller, grid system instead of a monolithic system is similar to what we did to make the internet, but it adds a lot more complexity. End points and substations can’t be dumb terminals, they’ll need to have knowledge of protocols and algorithms in order to react correctly. The internet for most people works most of the time, but that just means there’s a lot of running around in the background to make sure it doesn’t all come tumbling down. I suspect the same will be true for the grid. “Smart” devices wont get rid of complexity, they’ll just shift and spread it around.

I suspect changes to the grid will be akin to changing the stock market from people to computers. Certainly possible, but there were several stock market crashes caused by computers before things were ironed out. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_flash_crash). Only instead of stocks, it’ll be the lights wont turn on, the fridges will go off, and no one will know why or when it’ll turn back on.

Despite my negativity, though, I still find the problems that are presented in this book to be really fascinating. She ends it on a high note, and it sounds like this area is ripe for innovation and change, hopefully for the better. Reading this book makes me want to join in on the problem-solving, and try to make the electrical system a bit smarter and a bit more stable.

What things I liked about the book

I think she did a good job explaining the overlapping systems and complexity of the grid, and gave a lot of interesting, concrete examples of both why the system is complex, and the results of that complexity. It has certainly changed my view of the electrical grid, from not thinking about it at all, to a lot more interest, and I think I’ll be looking into it a bit more.

What things I didn’t like about the book

A lot of her prose felt like she was trying to make her audiences feel smart for understanding her, rather than clearly explaining the topic. Lots of convoluted sentences (I know I’m one to talk, but still), with words that traded clarity for fanciness. Since it’s a popular science style book, she also repeats herself quite a bit, re-phrasing the same thing over and over. The book could have been much better if it was half the length, with the same amount of info. It would definitely be dense, but I think it’d be much less of a slog. Other people on goodread back me up on this, calling it “insightful yet verbose”, or the more brutal, “rambling and repetitive”, so I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought this.

Would I recommend it?

Still though, it’s not a huge book, and it does give a lot of good grounding, and doesn’t assume complex technical knowledge. I would recommend reading this book if you’re interested in learning more about a system you use everyday but probably never think about.