Mar. 22—Editor's note: Pacific NW magazine's weekly Backstory provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the writer's process or an extra tidbit that accompanies our Mainstory.
I DON'T KNOW about you, but my experience of electricity tends to be highly individual. I flip the switch, the lamp goes on; I charge my phone, then carry a dollop of energy around in my pocket.
But in working on this week's story about electricity — and potential changes coming to utilities around the Northwest as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels — I was increasingly impressed by the deeply social nature of the phenomenon, even at the subatomic level.
To generate electricity, power plants forcibly divorce electrons from their protons, then channel those electrons down wires, where their yearning for reunification creates current. That's social. To balance their service areas — which should have neither too much nor too little energy at any given time — electric utilities across the western United States trade megawatts with each other. (As Jim Baggs, an officer at Seattle City Light, put it: "We have people in place, at desks, 24/7, physically matching those loads [energy demand] with resources [energy supply].") Also social.
And proposed solutions to a big energy problem — how to incorporate more unpredictable resources such as wind and solar while maintaining stable, secure power — are social, too.
As utility officials and independent researchers who contributed to this week's story argue, decarbonizing our grid should involve even more communication and megawatt-swapping, making it easier to find the renewable-energy options we need, whether they're in Washington, Idaho or Arizona.
Investing in those big-grid solutions, says Emeka Anyanwu — innovation and resources officer at Seattle City Light — is also the more just approach: "A large-scale grid, administered as a social good, is still, in my estimation, the best way to ensure access to energy remains ubiquitous and equitable — so we don't have a system of haves and have-nots."
What he doesn't want to see: disproportionate incentives for the wealthy to withdraw into isolated zones of household solar and basement batteries while the public grid faces disinvestment and neglect — or all the new grid infrastructure going into less affluent communities, like it tended to in the late 20th century.
What we now call the grid began stirring to life in the 1800s (a chunk here, a chunk there), eventually lashing itself into a dense network: an enormous social machine. The future of that machine, Anyanwu and others contend, is also increasingly social. From the electrons on up.
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