MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The storm in Texas shows how fragile US infrastructure can be, and you may be wondering if this problem extends beyond Texas. It does. In its most recent report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US energy infrastructure a D-Plus, citing “Without paying greater attention to aging equipment, capacity constraints and increased demand, and increasing storm and climate impacts.” Americans are likely to experience longer and more frequent power outages, “unquote.
We wanted to know more about it and called Gretchen Bakke. She is the author of The Grid: The Frayed Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, which examines the history of electrical energy and its current challenges. When we spoke earlier today, she explained that the problems in Texas are due in part to its independence from the US grid.
GRETCHEN BAKKE: With Texas they had all this freedom because they are not connected, because they produce their own electricity for themselves, right? At the same time, it means that they did not have a mistake. And there is a very fierce market – right? – that happens there too. So there has been a lot of worry or attention paid to how to make money with this tiny – I mean, Texas is big, but not compared to the west coast power grid.
So within this tiny type of electricity community, it's not that much money that goes into infrastructure, but into very simple things that we know we need, like a little jacket that you put on an instrument panel that stays outside . right? Because you don't expect the Texas natural gas pipelines to freeze, do you? This is another problem. You don't expect a pile of coal to freeze solid so you can't get the coal into your power plant. You don't expect your wind turbines to fail.
But all of these things are just minor changes or more care in the maintenance of the actual physical infrastructure, which is then compounded by the fact that you can't import power into Texas – not all of Texas, but the parts that are lost in power.
M MARTIN: So what's the bigger lesson here? What must happen to the US power grid now? I mean what should we think about now?
BAKKE: There are two different things that have to happen to the power grid at the moment. The first is what's called hardening – and that's what we're talking about in Texas – where you just spend a little time and attention figuring out what to do in that particular place to make the system so make it more resilient, right? You need to put a small jacket on your instrument panels.
And second, we have to do something else, which is to think about how we can run an electricity system using renewable or carbon-free resources, since nuclear power is really – really a backbone of the electricity system in some parts of the country. But it wasn't the turbines that were the problem in Texas. It wasn't really the sun, that was a problem in Texas.
And this type of grid is re-imagining electricity that is generated and moved and used differently – that actually gives you the opportunity to say things like: What if Austin had solar panels on their roofs and were allowed to use them? Electricity to keep your own electricity? Because now you have to feed solar energy back into the larger grid in the USA. So these are very minor changes in thinking and I think this is really important – so to harden the grid, yes, but also to think we are in the 21st century.
Think about how we can make the whole thing better – not by ripping it out, but by slowly integrating, changing, rethinking and redefining what the world could look like without actually being dependent on things. The fossil fuels – we love them. We built the grid to work with them. We built the economy to work with them, right? But that is exactly what causes these kinds of weird weather events.
M MARTIN: I think most of us outside of Texas have wondered why the Texas governor immediately went to one of the Conservative talk shows defending fossil fuels and criticizing renewable energies. And many of us found that puzzling, given that some of Texas’s energy procurement comes from renewable sources. And I assume that this will play a leading role. In fact, they have a greater percentage than other places. But why was there this rush to criticize renewable energies? It just seemed strange to us. Can you explain that?
BAKKE: There's something going on that links conservative politics to what President Trump has called our kind of fuel, our kind of power. And it is precisely this material, historical, known and reliable source of energy that we have at our disposal that has a conservatism. The idea that you can rely on fossil fuels – the fossil fuels are – they are kind of a safety blanket, and that the incoming or the risky is those variable renewable energy sources.
And by variable, I mean that you can't turn up a wind turbine – right? – because it runs at the speed of the wind. So when it's running at its maximum it's the speed of the wind. You can surfac – if your pipeline is not frozen, you can surfac natural gas. If your coal pile isn't frozen, you can turn up your coal power plant. And that means that we choose, not nature. And there is something very, very certain about that.
That translates in a strange way to a number of political beliefs. So it's not all – a lot of Republicans are especially in favor of solar energy because it allows some kind of independence and self-sufficiency, right? It is not just divided on party lines. But at that moment it wasn't surprising that there was such a point – you know, here's the danger. It's what we can't control, right? What we cannot control is the danger.
M MARTIN: So it's interesting. It's not necessarily the basics. This is how people feel about it.
BAKKE: Exactly. I'm an anthropologist – right? – So I'm not an electrical engineer who writes about the power grid. And it was geared the way it was designed and how we've changed it over the past 120 years – it's absolutely in keeping with the uniqueness of American values, business values, and also cultural values over time. We are constantly changing this infrastructure. We always intervene. And now we say let's make electricity renewable. Oh honey right This is a major technological problem. However, this problem comes from our value system.
M MARTIN: This is Gretchen Bakke. She teaches anthropology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. She is the author of The Grid: The Frayed Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future.
Professor Bakke, thank you for sharing your expertise with us.
BAKKE: Yeah. Many thanks for the invitation.
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