America’s Largest, Most Neglected Machine Could Be the Key to Radical Climate Activism
May 23, 2022 - The Nation Blogs
The planet’s largest yet most overlooked machine, astounding, complex, and neglected as it is, doesn’t usually present as a particularly captivating subject, let alone as a site of revolutionary change.
When the US electrical grid does manage to make its way into the headlines, it’s usually with respect to its vulnerability. In May of 2020, Donald Trump caused a stir when he signed an executive order to wean utilities off ordering bulk power systems from “adversaries,” fearing that the equipment would be compromised by “backdoor” mechanisms. More immediate threats, however, have tended to be domestic and decidedly low-tech. A common cause of wildfires and blackouts is trees and other vegetation interfering with aboveground power lines. In 2013, snipers fired at a substation from a highway in Metcalf, Calif., forcing Pacific Gas and Electric to reroute electricity to avoid a blackout. When Russia launched a cyber war against the Ukrainian grid through the infamous Sandworm attacks in 2015 and ‘16, US analysts took it as a sign that America might be next. Russia’s continued assault on Ukraine’s electrical grid following its invasion confirms the importance of grid security as a geopolitical issue.
Over the past year, grid-related news shifted toward climate adaptation and mitigation measures with President Joe Biden’s massive, legislatively beleaguered infrastructure proposal; the much-diminished version that eventually passed includes a more than $65 billion Building a Better Grid Initiative. Still, news coverage has been long on political gridlock and short on the grid’s potential as a foundation for building the kind of radical—yes, radical—climate activism that will be poised to help navigate our hyper-polarized, alarmist American moment.
To understand how progressives can take one of the nation’s least sexy news beats and turn it into a site of invigorated activism, it’s important to recognize that the US electrical grid is about as fragmented as America itself. Though the word “grid” suggests a single network, in reality there are three: the Eastern Interconnection, which runs east of the Rocky Mountains and includes a portion of the Texas Panhandle; the Western Interconnection, which covers the Rockies to the West Coast; and the self-explanatory Electric Reliability Council of Texas. This fragmentation—each interconnection is independently synchronized—predictably extends to mismatched regional structural and regulatory layers. In other words, as with information flow, so with electricity: Many Americans exist in echo chambers.
In few of these silos, however—either online or on the grid—do you hear much about the importance of improving the connectivity of the grid in a way that would help the US achieve its goals for reducing carbon emissions. Or, at least, in fewer than you’d think, when our disconnected state of affairs currently precludes the wide-scale adoption of renewable energy like wind and solar; expert opinion holds that the grid simply isn’t prepared to handle the influx. For those looking to galvanize momentum for an energy revolution, therefore, grid connectivity and flexibility offers a rare, nonpoliticized (or at least less politicized) arena for climate activism, sidestepping well-worn points of polarization and pulling achievable adaptation and mitigation measures into view.
Anyone still dabbling in optimism might then suggest that the national grid—fragmented, federalist, and strained beyond capacity—could provide a productive, all-too-on-the-nose metaphor for the fractured, battered infrastructure of US democracy itself—as well as a concrete framework for repairing it.
Against the (quite literally) gridlocked political backdrop of Congress, those activists who have focused on the problem of energy infrastructure are the ones gaining the greatest traction with the climate-conscious public. The Swedish activist and political philosopher Andreas Malm published his deliberately provocative How to Blow Up a Pipeline in the US last year, to vigorous debate. The thrust of Malm’s argument is more or less that, after so many years of stagnation in the effort to transition from fossil fuels, we ought to consider whether the time has come to start destroying the property that keeps the oil flowing and the coal burning. Malm focuses strictly and carefully on direct action and sabotage of private property and public infrastructure. He takes pains to distinguish between violence committed against capital and violence committed against people. In the US context, the Citizens United decision deliberately blurred the lines between the two, making the ordinary American reader even less likely to buy into Malm’s argument.
It’s telling, however, that outlets like The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times greeted his provocation if not with outright support, then with a flicker of fascination. That such radical arguments are being entertained in the mainstream media indicates rising levels of frustration with the sluggish pace of politics-as-usual. The target reader of these magazines is definitely not the type who would actually blow up a pipeline. But she might be the type who would focus on another urgent infrastructure-related issue: the need to update the grid to be compatible with renewables and the mass adoption of electric vehicles. It’s an attitude that, if activated, could be a boon to organizers and activists ready to channel it.
The story of the US grid’s unruly structural development runs parallel to that of electricity itself. After much trial and error, Thomas Edison got the first small-scale grid up and running in 1882, according to Gretchen Bakke in her 2016 history The Grid. Edison relied on direct current (DC), which at the time petered out around the one-mile mark. By 1887, he was powering offices within a one-mile radius of his company’s Pearl Street Station in Lower Manhattan and could extend no further. The challenge of delivering electricity from its point of production to more distant sites of consumption would take another decade to solve and is usually referred to as the “war of the currents.” Not until it was demonstrated that high-voltage alternating current (AC), which can be transmitted over long distances, could be easily stepped up or down through the use of transformers did a workable solution for powering the nation emerge. AC debuted at scale with the Niagara Falls Power Company in 1896, and it still powers America’s transmission lines today. But partly because of continued strains on long-distance transmission capacity, the current system is incompatible with scaling up renewables like solar and wind.
You can think of the grid as a grand, automated matchmaker: There’s a constant pairing off of energy producers with energy users as they come online. Except unlike in a dating market, singles can crash the entire machine: Unsold product or unmet demand can cause a blackout. To prevent this, regulatory bodies called “balancing authorities” (which as often as not also act as utilities) step in to intervene. During the pandemic, when the widespread adoption of remote work dramatically changed demand patterns, electricity markets in Europe dipped into negative energy prices with uncommon frequency; balancing authorities were actually paying consumers to soak up excess production.
Because maintaining this balance between production and demand is so crucial, utilities have traditionally limited volatility through both the types of energy they produce and the clients they choose to patronize. Coal, gas, and nuclear provide steady production, while predictable energy patterns smooth out demand. Industry enjoys a 40 to 50 percent discount on electricity compared with individual households, whose more erratic, lower-voltage usage “peaks” at the bookends of the 9-to-5 grind. Consistency and predictability, as much as fossil fuels, are what keep America lit.
This is the main obstacle we face in switching to renewables. Solar, wind, and hydropower are governed not by someone turning on a switch at the power plant, but by the weather. They therefore dump an enormous amount of volatile energy supply onto a grid designed for predictability. Nuclear plants or “transition fuels” like natural gas pump reliable, predictable energy into the grid 24 hours a day (the latter can also be quickly fired up or dialed down to adjust to unexpected shifts in demand). Renewables, by contrast, contribute to electricity production only when the sun shines and the wind blows. This increases the risk of sudden collapses in production and of sudden increases in production (“surges”), which, in excess of demand, can damage equipment.
One solution to maintaining balance in a more volatile production environment is to boost long-distance transmission capacity by integrating the disparate grids, both physically and through standardizing local and state regulatory structures. Not only do long-distance transmission lines in a lower-friction grid allow regional markets to tap into renewables at distant locations; they also potentially help to balance volatility and demand, as production is spread among more energy users and the markets on which energy is bought and sold are simplified. They furthermore allow for full-capacity production in sunny and windy areas, where the energy potential outstrips the local consumer base; as of 2020, an estimated 755 gigawatts of renewable energy were stalled in development because the integrated transmission capacity to carry that energy to consumers simply doesn’t exist. Such bottlenecks prevent new renewable energy producers from coming to market: Even if Tesla were to introduce a grid-scale battery capable of storing solar, it is currently not possible to send that power from a crowded solar production market in temperate, sunny New Mexico to wintry New England, where consumers are cranking up the heat.
But what if it were? Expanding transmission capacity, regulating and integrating the three independent national grids (as well as regional fragmentation within interconnections), and introducing smart grid technology that minimizes the risk of blackouts are all key parts of Biden’s Building a Better Grid Initiative, which promises “cleaner and cheaper energy” for all Americans. The White House has also emphasized the ways that expanded transmission capacity would improve the ability to respond to disasters, presumably by allowing distressed regions to borrow power from more stable ones.
That said, the fact that many of these grid-related goals were shared by Biden’s Democratic predecessor presages the challenges to come: Only two of Barack Obama’s seven proposed projects to ramp up the kind of transmission capacity required for scalable renewable energy managed to evade local opposition to the arrival of unsightly power lines.
Maybe you’re not the type to blow up a pipeline. Maybe you’re even adamantly against it, vehemently opposed to direct action of all kinds. Maybe you’re also acutely worried that our democracy’s losing race against the climate countdown will stoke admiration for authoritarian regimes as well as extremist activist measures; you might be the type to fret about the further deterioration of democracy through worsening ecological crises. After all, democracy hardly thrives in a permanent state of emergency. And in recognizing the very real logic of extremist responses to stagnated climate politics, and the threat that poses to the stability of democracy itself, you just might be the type to help turn anti-transmission NIMBY-ist obstructionism into national climate news.
In the fractious American politics of the 2020s, no transformation comes for free. For the climate adaptation movement, even the lowest-hanging fruit is politically and fiscally costly.
On the other hand, as of 2020, Americans experience more blackouts than other industrialized nations, at an estimated cost of $150 billion annually. Those aboveground electrical lines implicated in many wildfires and blackouts were erected in the 1950s and ’60s (it would be safer, if more expensive, to run them underground). Other key components of the grid’s infrastructure, from wooden electrical poles to transformers, were designed to last about 50 years. That is to say, we don’t have a choice not to pursue modernization and adaptation measures.
If cost and fragmented regulatory and ownership models are major hurdles to updating the grid for new ecological realities, another, possibly even greater one is resistance to regional compromise: Who will live near the transmission lines? Can states agree to standardize regulatory measures so that electricity markets can be more nationalized, with plants in New Mexico servicing customers in New York and vice versa? In the current political environment, the fact that locals must share the benefits of improvements to their infrastructure with far-flung communities makes the push for grid connectivity an even tougher pill to swallow. Nevertheless, the negotiation process ought to emphasize concrete gains at the local level: cleaner, more affordable energy that stimulates job markets, both in the immediate area and across the country. It’s simple enough for a slogan. And yet it isn’t one.
While it’s often said that climate change is experienced regionally, the costs are national. Federal tax dollars go toward aiding fellow Americans who faced unimaginable loss in the recent December blaze in Boulder, Colo., or in the floods in Texas and the Midwest in 2019; or who will continue to lose power to record-defying super tornadoes in the Dust Bowl. Sharing the cost of electricity as well as the cost of adapting to worsening disasters underscores the very national nature of the catastrophes we face: We share a national treasury, and we almost share a grid.
Research shows that overexposure to climate fatalism can leave the public paralyzed, making defeatist alarmism about as effective as denialism: Images of disaster, shorn of any potential context for mitigation, spread as rapidly as wildfires across social media channels, leaving many consumers of climate content in impotent despair. National grid connectivity could provide just the framework—just enough of a framework—to overcome polarization and paralysis in the face of genuine alarm.
The current messaging environment makes it all too easy for individuals concerned about climate change to fall into the trap of either the hyper-micro (should I cycle to work and give up all plastic packaging?) or the hyper-macro (how can I, a single person, end the global consumption of fossil fuels?) imagination. Anyone who has stressed over such micro-level concerns knows the feeling of losing sight of the forest for the trees; those who have wrestled with slotting individual responsibility into narratives of global action can attest to feelings of helplessness in the face of the seemingly insurmountable. Infrastructure-scale projects occupy the vast gray area in between, with consequences just large enough to be meaningful, yet with a framework just focused—just local—enough for individuals to imagine themselves as part of a unified campaign.
America’s largest, most neglected machine may seem an unlikely site for galvanizing democratic politics. But there’s potential to be harnessed here if we’d like to disrupt the way we fight with and for each other to upgrade the nation that—like a jerry-rigged circuit board—for now remains only flimsily connected.
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