As heat, transportation go electric, grid reliability matters even more

By Meredith Angwin

What kind of grid do we want? That can be a huge question with many passionate answers. Solar? Nuclear? Long transmission lines? Distributed generation? However, most people will agree that the lights should go on when you flick the switch. 

Reliability is important to everyone. I am an older woman in snow country, and my furnace has electric controls. Clearly, reliability is important to me.

Meredith Angwin

A reliable grid will be even more important in the future. If we stop using fossil fuels, electricity won’t just control our heating systems, electricity will be our heating system. Almost all of us will use heat pumps. (The entire United States cannot heat itself by burning wood, though some fraction of the population can use wood products for home heating.)

My recent book is Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid. This book describes the causes of our grid’s increasing fragility: lack of planning, five-minute auctions, over-dependence on renewables and natural gas. However, grid fragility also has consequences. 

In Shorting, I don’t describe the consequences very much. It’s just one book, and it can’t cover everything. Personally, I try not to think too much about what would happen to me and my family if our area did not have reliable electricity.

The fragile grid

Without being scary about it, Robert Bryce makes it very clear why we need a reliable grid, both in his book A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, and his movie “Juice, How Electricity Explains the World.” I recommend them both, very highly. He gives memorable illustrations of how people’s lives are changed by access to electricity (for example, in India), and the lengths that people will go to obtain reliable electricity (for example, in Beirut).

Robert Bryce recently interviewed me on the Power Hungry podcast. In the interview, Bryce kept the focus on the punchline of Shorting the Grid: Why our grid is fragile, and what we can do about it.


If you want scary, on the other hand, there’s another book, Powering Through: Building Critical Infrastructure Resilience, by a large group of authors. This is published through Infragard, an organization concerned with threats to U.S. infrastructure. Infragard evaluates threats (and responses to threats) to our electricity supply, water supply, and hospitals. Infragard thinks about things that (frankly) I am mostly too scared to think about. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI play lead roles in Infragard.

Electricity is the Mother Network

The newly issued Infragard book, Powering Through, is organized by infrastructure type, and the book asks the same set of questions about each type of infrastructure. The first question is always: “What happens to this type of infrastructure if there is no electric power?”

Yes. That is the first question, because electricity is the Mother Network.

When I say that electricity is the “mother network,” I am quoting Robert Bryce. In his endorsement of Shorting, Bryce wrote that “all of those networks (that we depend upon) rely on the mother network: the electric grid.” Indeed, we depend on it. And we need to manage it in a manner that leads to reliability. Five minute auctions, requirements for fuel neutrality, duplicative and contentious “capacity auctions”—-these do not promote grid reliability.

We can manage the grid for reliability. We need to do so.

Shorting the Grid

If you haven’t read Shorting the Grid, let me encourage you to read it. If you have read it, thank you. I hope you will leave a review on Amazon.

Electricity enables people to have relatively safe, relatively abundant, relatively happy lives. It doesn’t cure every problem of the human condition, but it cures some and makes others more bearable. Whether or not we are interested in the grid, we all benefit from reliable electricity.

Meredith Angwin of Wilder is a scientist, author, and former Vermont representative to the ISO-NE Consumer Liaison Group.

2 replies »

  1. Yes indeed. Just read any government report on what the impacts of an EMP would be to get an idea of how we would fare even now should the grid go down. It is estimated that 90% of Americans would die in the first year should we experience widespread grid-failure. That’s before we go about forcing everyone to drive electric cars and use heat pumps. Glad I have an awesome woodstove;efficient,clean burning and works if the grid is up or down!

  2. When you are one of hundreds who plugged in your Electric Car at 5pm to recharge;
    And it blows the circuits, and your electricity is gone,
    No problem, just drain your car battery trying to fix supper
    Then walk to work tomorrow!

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