NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with Professor Gretchen Bakke about the fragility of the U.S. electricity grid that was highlighted amid a winter storm in Texas earlier this week.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The storm in Texas shows just how fragile America’s infrastructure can be, so you might wonder if this problem extends beyond Texas. It does. In its latest report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s energy infrastructure a D-plus, stating, quote, “without further attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks and increased demand, as well as the increased effects of storms and climate, Americans are likely to experience longer and more frequent power outages, ”he explains.
We wanted to know more about it, so we called Gretchen Bakke. She is the author of “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future,” which examines the history of electric power and its current challenges. When we spoke earlier today, she explained that the problems in Texas are in part due to its independence from the US electricity grid.
GRETCHEN BAKKE: With Texas, because they’re not connected, because they’re making their own electricity for themselves, they’ve had all that freedom, right? But at the same time, it means that they haven’t had any oversights. And there is a very fierce market – right? – it happens there too. So there’s been a lot of worry or a lot of attention on how to make money in this tiny one – I mean Texas is big, but not compared, like, to the West Coast power grid. .
So in this little kind of electric community, little money is invested in infrastructure, in very simple things that we know we need, which is like a little jacket, for example, that you put on a dashboard that stay outside, right? Because you don’t expect gas pipelines to freeze up in Texas, do you? This is another problem. You don’t expect a pile of coal to freeze in such a way that you can’t get the coal into your power plant. You don’t expect your wind turbines to not work.
But all of these things are just slight changes or more care in maintaining the actual physical infrastructure which is then made worse by the fact that you can’t actually import electricity into Texas – not all of Texas. , but the parts that have lost Power.
M MARTIN: So what’s the general lesson here? What must happen now with the American electricity grid? I mean, what should we be thinking about now?
BAKKE: There are two different things that need to happen to the power grid right now. The first is what’s called hardening – and that’s what we’re talking about in Texas – where you spend a little time and attention figuring out what you need to do in that particular location in order to make the system there. is more resistant, right? You have to put a little jacket on your instrument panels.
And secondly, we need to do something else, think about how we can run an electricity system with renewable resources or non-carbon resources, since nuclear really – in some parts of the country is really a backbone of electricity. . system. But it’s not the turbines – the wind turbines that are the problem in Texas. It wasn’t really solar power that was the problem in Texas.
And that kind of a network reimagining electricity that is made and moves differently and is used differently – it will actually give you the ability to say things like, what if in Austin people had problems. solar panels on their roofs and were allowed to use electricity to keep their own power? Because now in the United States you have to put solar power back into the bigger grid. And so these are very slight shifts in thinking, and I think that’s what really matters – so to harden the grid, yes, but also to think, we’re in the 21st century.
For example, think about how we can do it all better – not by tearing it apart, but by slowly integrating, changing, rethinking, reinventing what the world might look like without really depending on things. Fossil fuels – we love them. We built the grid to work with them. We built the economy to work with them, didn’t we? But that’s what causes these kind of weird weather events.
MR MARTIN: I think most of us outside of Texas were wondering, like, why the Governor of Texas immediately went on one of the conservative talk shows, you know, to defend fossil fuels and criticize renewable energies. And many of us have found this somewhat confusing since a fraction of the energy supply in Texas comes from renewables. And I understand that he is a leader in this area. In fact, they sort of have a higher percentage than other places. But why was there this rush to criticize renewable energies? It just seemed strange to us. Can you explain this?
BAKKE: There is something going on that ties conservative politics to what President Trump called our type of fuel, our type of power. And there is a conservatism in this very material, historical, known and reliable source of energy that we control. So the idea that you can rely on fossil fuels – fossil fuels are the – they’re kind of the blanket of safety, and the incoming or risky thing is these variable renewable energy sources.
And by variable, I mean you can’t turn a wind turbine – can you? – because it spins at the speed of the wind. So if it turns at maximum, it is the wind speed. You can introduce yourself – if your pipeline is not frozen, you can increase natural gas. If your coal pile is not frozen, you can start your coal-fired power station. And that means that it is we who decide, not nature that decides. And there is something very, very certain about it.
It strangely corresponds to a set of political persuasions. So that’s not all – a lot of Republicans are in favor of solar power in particular because it allows some sort of independence and self-sufficiency, right? It’s not just divided along party lines. But right now, it wasn’t surprising that there was this kind of a point at – you know, here’s the danger. It’s the thing we can’t control, right? What we cannot control is the danger.
MR MARTIN: So it’s interesting. These are not necessarily the fundamentals. This is what people feel.
BAKKE: Exactly. I’m an anthropologist, right? – so I am not an electrical engineer who writes about the electrical network. And it has aligned itself as it was designed and as we have changed it over the past 120 years – it absolutely aligns with the uniqueness of American values, business values and also cultural values over the years. time. We are constantly changing this infrastructure. We are still working on it. And now we say, let’s make renewable energy. Oh my God no? Like, this is a huge technological problem. But this problem stems from our value system.
M MARTIN: It’s Gretchen Bakke. She teaches anthropology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. She is the author of “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future”.
Professor Bakke, thank you very much for sharing your expertise with us.
BAKKE: Yeah. Thank you for inviting me.
(SOUND PRESENTATION OF THE “LICORICE” OF MF DOOM)
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