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Maggie speaking in Kansas City and Lawrence

I'm excited to be back on my old home turf next week, with two speaking events in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lawrence, Kansas.

Both events are centered on Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy.

Thursday, August 30, 7:00 pm — The Raven bookstore in Lawrence
I'll be back in my college town to talk about the weird, messy history of electricity, and the ways that writing online can help build a better book. Join me at 6 East 7th Street, Lawrence, Kansas.

Friday, August 31, 7:00 pm — Prospero's Books in Kansas City
My event at Prospero's will cover a lot of the same ground as The Raven event, but will get more in-depth on the engineering of how our electric grid works and why this flawed system affects what we can and can't do to solve our energy problems. RSVP for the Prospero's event (and get address info) on Facebook.

Image: Electricity, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from elycefeliz's photostream

Blackout: What's wrong with the American grid

It began with a few small mistakes.

Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data.

Read the rest

Meet the people who keep your lights on

Power was restored today in India, where more than 600 million people had been living without electricity for two days. That’s good news, but it’s left many Americans wondering whether our own electric grid is vulnerable.

Read the rest

Maggie speaking in Richland, Washington today

I'm speaking this evening at the Public Library in Richland, Washington, talking about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. The talk starts at 7:00 pm. You can learn more by checking out the website for my book, Before the Lights Go Out. Hope to see you there! Maggie

The history of the U.S. electric grid

Where did our electric grid come from? It's a complicated question to answer. That's because the grid we have today didn't come from any single place. Instead, its origins are scattered, distributed geographically, technologically, and philosophically.

Different people built different parts of the grid in different ways and for different reasons. For many years—up until the 1970s in some places—individual towns and cities were independent grids that weren't connected to anything else around them. They functioned as little islands, incapable of reaching out for help when things went wrong.

More importantly, the grid wasn't designed. It evolved. Nobody ever really sat down and thought about how to build the best grid possible. The grid as we know it was assembled from bits and pieces, from mini-grids that were often built to be cheap and to go up quickly. Quality wasn't always priority number one.

I think the story of the electric grid in Appleton, Wisconsin—the second centralized electric grid in the world and the first hydroelectric power plant in the world—is a great example of all of this history in action.

Last month, I got to talk about Appleton at a Barnes and Noble in the Bay Area. The video of that talk went up on CSPAN Book TV yesterday. It's not available for embedding, unfortunately, but I encourage you to give it a watch. The talk covers not only history, but also the importance of writing about science online, rather than in print. You guys, as commenters at BoingBoing, have made my writing better—and for that you get a shout-out. (Plus: At the 5 minute mark, you can see a little cameo of Dean and Pesco in the audience.)

Watch the video at Book TV

Learn more about the history of the electric grid, and how the grid works today, by reading my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: The Electric Highway, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tomsaint's photostream

Energy is more than sources; energy is systems

When we talk about energy, we often talk about it in very disconnected ways. By that, I mean we talk about new renewable generation projects, we talk about cleaning up dirty old power plants, and we talk about personal decisions you and I can make to use less energy, or get more benefits from the same amount.

What we fail to talk about is how all those ideas fit together into a coherent whole. And that matters, because our energy problems (and our energy solutions) are about more than just swapping sources of power or making individual choices. We have to fix the systems, not just the symptoms.

Back in April, I got to go on Minnesota Public Radio's "Bright Ideas" to talk about my book, Before the Lights Go Out. Now MPR has the entire hour-long interview up on video. You can watch the whole thing if you want. But, if you're short on time, I'd recommend the stretch from about minute 8:30 to 10:50. That's where I explain in more detail why systems—infrastructures—are so important and why we can't solve our energy problems without focusing on how choices and sources fit into those larger issues.

Watch that clip, then read this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article about how investments in transportation-oriented bicycle infrastructure have changed the way Minneapolites think about biking and dramatically increased the number of people who choose to bike. I think you'll see some thematic connections.

Learn more about how our energy infrastructures shape our choices and our lives by reading Before the Lights Go Out.

Video Link

Maggie talking about decentralized electricity and the future of energy in New York City

I'm going to be in New York at the end of May, talking about my new book Before the Lights Go Out. There's two great events you should join me for. On May 29th at 6:00 pm, I'll be talking about the electric grid, the process of writing a book, and how writing online has improved my work as a science journalist. On May 30th at 6:30 pm, I'll be leading a panel on decentralized energy. Chris Hackett—of the Science Channel's Stuck with Hackett—will be joining me to talk about DIY energy, and Susan Covino, who works for one of the independent organizations that controls movement of electricity around the grid, will talk about integrating decentralized power into our existing infrastructure. Both events are free and open to the public, but you do need to follow those links and RSVP. Maggie

Energy and geo-engineering: Maggie on the radio

I'm going to be on the radio a couple of times today, talking about my book, Before the Lights Go Out, and the future of energy and climate. At 1:00 Eastern/Noon Central, you can listen to an hour-long interview with me on Minnesota Public Radio's Bright Ideas. You don't have to be in Minnesota to listen. It's streaming online. Then, about 2:10 Eastern/1:10 Central, I'll be on "To the Point", talking about climate, energy, and geo-engineering. Climate scientist Ken Caldiera will also be on that show and he's a great speaker. That will be online, as well. Maggie

Where electricity comes from

Electricity is generated at power plants. You know that already. But to really understand how it gets to your house—and why you can count on it getting there reliably—you have to understand that our electric system is more complicated than it looks. The electric grid isn't just about you and your connection to a power plant. There are lots of thing that have to happen behind the scenes to make sure your refrigerator stays cold and your lights turn on.

One of the key components in the system are grid control centers—places where technicians manage electric supply and electric demand. This is important. In order for the grid to operate without blackouts there must always be an almost perfect balance between supply and demand. The grid doesn't really include any electrical storage, so that balance has to be maintained manually—on a minute-by-minute basis—by grid controllers who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This isn't the best way to make a grid work, but it's what we've done since the earliest days of electricity.

In the April issue of Discover, I take readers on a tour of one of these grid control centers.

1. A River Runs Through It
 Power plants generate electricity, but they do not create anything from scratch. Instead, generators take electrons, which normally orbit the nucleus of an atom, and force them to move independently through the grid’s closed path. When too many electrons build up or their numbers in the system (monitored here) fall too low, you get a total loss of power: a blackout.

Read the rest of story at Discover

Meet the grid controllers and learn more about the inner workings of our electric system in my book, Before the Lights Go Out.

Tonight: Join a G+ hangout to talk energy, infrastructure, and science geekery

I'm going to be joining a Google+ hangout tonight with the nice folks from Scilingual. We'll be talking about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy—as well as my new book, Before the Lights Go Out. If you want to join us, just circle Scilingual on G+ and you'll get an invite to the hangout. It starts at 6 pm Pacific/9 pm Eastern. Maggie

Maggie in the Bay Area, May 2 and 3

I've got four events in the Bay Area on May 2nd and 3rd. On May 2 at noon, I'll be speaking to the San Francisco chapter of the AIA about electricity, infrastructure and the future of energy. May 2 at 6:00 pm, I'll be giving the same presentation at UC Berkeley, for the Berkeley Science Review's Spring Seminar. May 3 at noon I'll be at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, talking about the 6 things scientists can learn from science journalists. Finally, May 3 at 7:00 pm, I'll be at the Barnes and Noble in El Cerrito, talking about Before the Lights Go Out and how writing about science online helped me write a better book. Maggie

The dirtiest wind power in America

In the left-hand corner of this photo, towards the back of the shot, you can see what researchers at Colorado State University jokingly call "the dirtiest wind power in America."

In reality, it's a diesel-powered electric generator—just a smarter version of the kind of machine that you might kick on at your house during a blackout. But this dirty diesel is actually helping to make our electric grid cleaner. This room is a smart grid research laboratory, a place where scientists and engineers learn more about how wind and solar power affect our old electric infrastructure, and try to develop systems that will make our grid more stable and more sustainable.

They use this diesel generator to model wind power on a micro-grid. The electricity produced by a wind farm doesn't enter the grid as a steady, flat signal. Instead, it fluctuates, oscillating up and down with shifts in wind currents. The diesel generator can mimic those patters of electricity production. With it, Colorado State researchers can study the behavior of wind currents all over the United States without having to have labs in all those places. They can also recreate wind events that have already happened—like a major storm—to find out how that event affected the grid and learn how to better adapt the grid to future situations.

The Energy and Engines Conversion Lab at Colorado State University

Learn more about how the grid works and how renewables fit into our existing infrastructure in my book, Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us.

Image: Dan Bihn, courtesy Colorado State University

Talk on the future of energy in Madison, Wisconsin

I'll be in Madison, Wisconsin on April 25th, talking about the history of electricity, our current electric infrastructure, and the future of energy. Come check it out! Maggie

Local, small-scale energy doesn't mean "every man for himself"

Today, most of our electricity is made by facilities that can power millions of homes at a time, and which are located a long way away from the people who use that power. For instance, the Kansas is currently embroiled in a long-drawn-out controversy over whether or not to build a new coal power plant in the far southwest corner of the state. If it gets built, that power plant will be 200 miles, in any direction, from the nearest town with a population greater than 30,000 people. But the power plant could produce enough electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes—an earlier version of the design could have powered millions.

It works that way because, like most things, it's both cheaper and more resource efficient to produce electricity in bulk, rather than a little bit at a time here and there. That Kansas coal plant is meant to produce electricity for seven different Western states. Not just Kansas.

For a number of reasons—but particularly because of the high, NIMBY-influenced costs of building the transmission lines that bridge the gap between these big power plants and the people who use them—we now have some opportunities to produce electricity at a smaller scale and still have it make sense. But what exactly does "small" mean? Depending on who you talk to, you'll get a different answer. And that answer has big implications for electric reliability and how our grid infrastructure operates.

At the Atlantic.com, you can find an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out, my new book, that discusses this difference, and the benefits and detriments of shared systems vs. energy independence.

When I talked to scientists and utility industry experts about decentralized generation, what they pictured was power production on the scale of Verdant Power's hydroelectric turbines beneath the East River or a gas-fired cogeneration plant that produced heat and electricity for a university campus. They thought of biofuels, and imagined a stationary central refinery, much smaller than the facilities that process oil into gasoline for the entire country but large enough to be industrialized. Electric capacities would be between 1 and 100 megawatts--enough to power hundreds or thousands of homes at a time. Economies of scale would still apply. The energy would still have to travel--whether by tanker truck or power line--to reach the people who wanted to use it.

Yet when I talk to my friends and family about decentralized generation, their minds immediately jump to something very different. To them, decentralized generation isn't only a somewhat smaller version of a system that already exists, like a scale model in a toy train set. Instead, they thought of decentralization as the creation of an entirely new, entirely separate system. They imagined a world where they didn't have to pay the electric company every month, because a one-time investment would allow them to make all of the electricity they needed with the help of the sun or the wind. No more rate hikes. No more ugly electric power lines threaded through their lives. That's what my friends and family were excited about. They wanted energy on site, something they could feel that they made by themselves. They loved the idea of the Madelia Model's traveling biofuel machine. Cogeneration plants bored them.

I think that this disconnect boils down to an issue of control. Scientists and utility experts have always been at the helm, guiding energy production. At least, they have been for as long as energy has been a scientific industry, for about a hundred years or so. When the rest of us turned energy production over to this small group, we got some benefits out of the deal.

Read the rest of the excerpt at The Atlantic.

Learn more about decentralized generation, and how the grid works, by reading my book Before the Lights Go Out.

Image: Bournville Station - electricity pylon and Dave billboard, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ell-r-brown's photostream

Maggie speaking at three events in Minneapolis next week

I'll be talking about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy at three different events next week in the Twin Cities. On Tuesday, join me at Minnesota Public Radio headquarters in St. Paul for a live taping of the interview show Bright Ideas. Thursday is my book launch party for Before the Lights Go Out, which will be at the Bakken Museum—an awesome museum dedicated to the history and science of electricity. Finally, Saturday is the 2012 Earth Day Tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I'll be speaking there, as will activist Shawn Otto and explorer Will Steger. Maggie