In “The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World”, Phillip Schewe provides his readers with a historical backdrop to the “largest industrial investment in history” – the electrical grid. He discusses the key players in its development – from the scientific geniuses who converted electricity from a curiosity to an essential tool for modern life, to the entrepreneurs who built the electrical infrastructure and marketed and sold power to the masses, to the political leaders who deemed it in the national interest to get the government into the power business to expand access to this essential commodity. Schewe writes from a fairly general point of view and avoids getting into too much technical or economic detail. He does often complement his historical summarizing with philosophical meanderings, which in my opinion add little value to the overall presentation.
While in many respects, the book fell short of my expectations, it was a good introductory text for someone new to the industry. The reader learns what drives the “power equation” (voltage and current) and why Alternating Current (AC) ultimately was chosen over Direct Current (DC) in devising the electric power distribution system in use today. Schewe discusses the electrical blackout of November 1965 at some length and in the context of that massive power failure, he argues the grid is something to be understood not just from the detailed perspective of circuits and electrical engineering, but as a system. He likens it to a sand pile, in which an additional grain of sand can create avalanches in unpredictable ways.
Between the advances in computing power, the deregulation of large swathes of the power business (thanks in large part to the Energy Policy Act of 1992), the increasing frequency of electrical disturbances, and the potential for renewable energy on a large scale, the need for an upgraded grid has never been greater. But Schewe provides little guidance on how to improve the grid, other than suggesting the possibility that “some new grid we had not thought of before” will need to be created – perhaps an indication that the energy industry is due for a “shakeup”, on par with the rapid progress in electrical science witnessed in the early 19th century.
Phillip F. Schewe, “The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World“; Joseph Henry Press (December 1, 2006). You can buy the book in the CleanTechies Bookstore.