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
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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. The problem was quickly fixed. But nobody turned the program back on again.
A little over an hour later, one of the six coal-fired generators at the Eastlake Power Plant in Ohio shut down. An hour after that, the alarm and monitoring system in the control room of one of the nation’s largest electric conglomerates failed. It, too, was left turned off.
Those three unrelated things—two faulty monitoring programs and one generator outage—weren’t catastrophic, in and of themselves. But they would eventually help create one of the most widespread blackouts in history. By 4:15 pm, 256 power plants were offline and 55 million people in eight states and Canada were in the dark. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 ended up costing us between $4 billion and $10 billion. That’s “billion”, with a “B”.
But this is about more than mere bad luck. The real causes of the 2003 blackout were fixable problems, and the good news is that, since then, we’ve made great strides in fixing them. The bad news, say some grid experts, is that we’re still not doing a great job of preparing our electric infrastructure for the future. Read the rest
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.
Here's the good news: The North American electric grid is not likely to crash in the kind of catastrophic way we've just seen in India. I'm currently interviewing scientists about the weaknesses in our system and what's being done to fix them and will have more on that for you tomorrow or Friday.
In the meantime, I wanted to share a chapter from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electric infrastructure and the future of energy. If you want to understand why our grid is weak, you first need to understand how it works. The key thing to know is this—at any given moment, in any given place, we must have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand. Fluctuations of even fractions of a percent can send parts of the system towards blackout.
More importantly, that careful balance does not manage itself. Across North America there are people working, 24-7, to make sure that your lights can turn on, your refrigerator runs, and your computer works. They're called grid controllers or system operators. Most utility customers have never heard of these guys, but we're all heavily dependent on them. They keep the grid alive and, in turn, they keep our lives functioning—all without the benefit of batteries or any kind of storage. Read the rest
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! Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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.
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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.
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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! Read the rest
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. Read the rest
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. Read the rest
If you only have the vaguest notion of what a "smart grid" actually is, don't feel bad. This is one of those energy buzzwords that confuses a lot of people. Part of the problem is that utility companies don't often do a very good job of communicating this stuff. They tell you it's good. They say something hand-wavey about the Internet. And then they pretty much leave you to fend for yourself.
The other part of the problem: "Smart grid" is one word that refers to more than one thing. A smart grid is actually lots of different technologies. They're related. But they do different jobs in different ways, and even one tool might have different levels of functionality that apply to it. That fact is really clear when you visit a smart grid research laboratory, as I did earlier this week at the Colorado State University.
The school's Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory houses a little micro-grid, where electricity can be generated, used, and stored in ways that model the workings of the real-life grid. The smart grid technologies the laboratory is used to study apply to every part of that system—smart grid is part of generation, it's part of how electricity is moved around, it's part of how we consume electricity, and it's part of how we balance supply and demand and avoid blackouts. In other words: This seemingly vague and esoteric concept is actually closely tied to practical, day-to-day realities.
Yesterday, I got to go on NPR's Marketplace Tech Report to talk about two smart grid technologies that you're likely to get some hands-on experience with in the near future. Read the rest
Join me Saturday at 7:00 Mountain time for a special edition of the Skeptically Speaking podcast. I'll be talking with host Desiree Schell about my new book Before the Lights Go Out. Tune into the live recording to learn more about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy—plus jokes. If you can't make the live recording, it'll be available for download on Friday, April 20th. Read the rest