September 16, 2021

How We Got our Grid and How We Get a Better One

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

Wind and solar are now some of the cheapest ways to make electricity. So, what’s standing in the way of using more of these renewable energies? One of the biggest barriers is something all around us that we rarely notice – our electricity grid. Not just the wires and technology that make up the grid, but also the people and institutions that run it. In this episode we talk with anthropologist Gretchen Bakke, author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future, about how we got our grid, and how we get a better one.


Guests: Gretchen Bakke, anthropologist and author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future


Call to Action

  • The infrastructure bill has $73 billion proposed to update our electricity grid so that it will be ready for more renewable energy. Let your legislators know that you think it’s important! Visit call4climate.com for more information and a script to help you with the call.

Learn More

  • Check out Gretchen Bakke’s book The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future here’s an excerpt
  • Check out the Edison Tech Center’s tour through the history of light
  • Read this article on the War of the Currents between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla
  • Read this report on grid resilience in the transition to renewables
  • Read this post to learn more about microgrids


Greetings Earthlings, Ayana here. 

Big, melancholy news: Next week will be my last week co-hosting How to Save a Planet. [weeping emoji] Gosh will I miss this show and this crew of ace folks who make it.

Over the past few months, you might have noticed Alex hosting more episodes solo while I was away working on other projects. Turns out I’m a human not a robot, and that I can’t do everything all at once –speaking of not sustainable! Alas. So after one glorious year of co-hosting, it’s time for me to write the solo book I failed to write last year, and (while we have a window of opportunity for federal policy change) to spend more time nerding out on ocean climate policy work with Urban Ocean Lab. (Shoutout to our Blue New Deal episode, my second favorite!) So stay tuned while I go hibernate, emerging periodically to make it rain policy memos.

Most importantly, the show must and will go on! Alex, Kendra, Rachel, Anna, Caitlin, Lauren, Peter and the rest of the team will keep bringing you deep takes, spicy climate facts, and charmingly awkward moments.

Tune in next week for my grand finale as co-host – about why gender equality is critical to addressing the climate crisis. Hellooooo All We Can Save and guest co-host Dr. Katharine Wilkinson. Also, I hear there’s a montage of some of the most absurd things I’ve said on mic over the last year…

Shoutout to Alex for being like “Yeah, sure, person I just met, I’ll create a climate podcast with you, ya weirdo. Let’s take this convo to the whiteboard.”

Thank you, each of you, for listening. Y’all warm my weary heart. And definitely keep listening because I still have access to the spreadsheet with all the plans for future episodes, and let me tell you, there is some extremely good content coming your way. 

I miss you already! xo

Ayana



Where to Listen

Transcript

How We Got our Grid and How We Get a Better One final web transcript


Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Are you recording? Do you want to boop?


Alex Blumberg: Yeah, let's do it.


Ayana: Three, two, one, boop! Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.


Alex: I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the show about what we need to do to address climate change, and how we make those things happen.


Alex: Doc!


Ayana: Yeah. What was your name? Slim?


Alex: No! I can't believe you forgot. Fancy.


Ayana: Fancy! [laughs] That's so much better than Slim.


Alex: [laughs] Slim! So before we get to today's episode, we have an announcement.


Ayana: So I'm stepping down as co-host. That's the big news.


Alex: And that is sad news. I'm not gonna try to sugarcoat it. We're gonna miss you as co-host.


Ayana: It's really sad. I'm bummed, I miss you already.


Alex: But, you know, there's a reason you're stepping down. Listeners, you may have noticed I've been recording a lot of podcasts lately where I say, you know, "I'm solo this week. My normal co-host Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is working on some of her other planet-saving projects."


Ayana: Mm-hmm.


Alex: People may have been noticing a trend.


Ayana: Yeah.


Alex: You are incredibly busy.


Ayana: I think too busy.


Alex: Yes.


Ayana: Might in fact have been the case.


Alex: I remember, like, when we first hit upon the idea of doing this podcast together, you were like, "A podcast? How hard can a podcast be?" [laughs]


Ayana: I had no clue what I was getting into. [laughs]


Alex: We make podcasts in the most complicated way possible. They take lots of time. There's lots of fact-checking. There's lots of scriptwriting.


Ayana: It's really nice that you're willing to admit that to the public. I remember when we were talking about like, oh, how much time do you need from me? And, like, what kind of team do we need to make this successful? I'd already signed a book contract, and I really wanted to write it. I was like, two days a week max, because I have to write this book.


Alex: Right.


Ayana: And then, you know, y'all are charming and the podcast was exciting, so it became three days a week. And then a lot of other things happened and the book never got written.


Alex: Yes.


Ayana: It was due last December, Alex, and I haven't started.


Alex: [laughs] The key point for me is that, like, this of course is my full-time job. You are a very busy author, scientist, non-profit founder, and so what is just like one job for me was one of many to you.


Ayana: Yeah, I had too many jobs.


Alex: And we should just be clear: you're stepping down as host, but the show is continuing.


Ayana: Yeah. Thank goodness.


Alex: I'm not going anywhere.


Ayana: And Kendra Pierre-Louis and Anna Ladd and Rachel Waldholz are gonna, like, keep bringing the hot takes and spicy climate facts.


Alex: Right. And of course, the people you don't hear on mic but are just as essential to getting this podcast out every week: Lauren Silverman, our supervising producer, and Caitlin Kenney, our editor, and Peter Leonard, our engineer, will all still be here as well. So the show continues despite the fact that our beloved co-host is leaving. And maybe you should tell people, like, what are you going to be working on?


Ayana: It's top secret, super classified. I'm sorry, I can't share that. Just kidding. That book that I didn't write last year.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Ayana: And the other big thing is—listeners will not be surprised to hear this—I want to spend more time doing ocean climate policy work while we have this window of opportunity at the federal level in particular.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Ayana: So with my non-profit policy think tank that I co-founded, Urban Ocean Lab, doing more of that kind of work, like the Blue New Deal type of stuff, for people who may recall that episode, which was definitely one of my favorites. So stay tuned for some very nerdy policy documents to be populating my social channels soon. [laughs]


Alex: [laughs] Is there, like, a Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson call to action for our listeners?


Ayana: Ooh, yeah! Of course. Always a call to action. I mean, the first one right now would be: keep listening to the show, obviously. It's still gonna be amazing. And the other one, I guess, would be please, please don't forget the ocean. We've got a lot going on when it comes to climate, and the ocean often gets left out. So don't forget the ocean. And if you want to follow along with what Urban Ocean Lab is doing, you can sign up for our newsletter if you just go to UrbanOceanLab.org/contact.


Alex: It's really exciting. And this isn't the very last time people will be hearing from you on the podcast.


Ayana: No, no, no.


Alex: Because ...


Ayana: Yeah, so you're hosting this episode, rest of it, without me today.


Alex: Right. Which we're gonna get to in a moment.


Ayana: And then next week is my final episode as co-host. And I'm so excited about getting to cover this topic before I skedaddle, and that is on gender and climate. I'll be co-hosting it with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, who many listeners will know. She and I co-edited the anthology All We Can Save. And she also co-hosts her own podcast with Leah Stokes called A Matter of Degrees. We love a collab.


Alex: Yup. That is coming up next week. It's gonna be an amazing episode. And also at the very end of that episode, we have a little surprise prepared for you. And that's all I'll say about that.


Ayana: [gasps]


Alex: That's all coming up next week. But now it's time to get on with the rest of today's episode. And today, we're talking about something that is all around us, but that we don't really think about that often. Something that's standing in the way of the energy future we all want. And we've talked a bit on the show before about the fact that wind and solar are two of the cheapest ways that we know of to make electricity.


Alex: I don't think I will ever get tired of repeating that fact: wind and solar are cheaper than coal, natural gas, nuclear power. But despite the lower cost, there are all these barriers to switching to renewables. Recently we did an episode about how legacy debt on coal-fired power plants was getting in the way, and we talked about potential solutions to that problem. Today we're gonna look at another legacy problem standing in the way of making the switch to the thing that's cheaper and cleaner: our electricity grid itself.


Gretchen Bakke: The grid in all its magnificence is the big barrier to switching.


Alex: This is Gretchen Bakke. She is the author of a book called The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. And she's also an anthropologist by training. And so when she says, "The grid in all its magnificence," she means the grid as wires and technology—the actual physical infrastructure that carry the electricity into our homes and businesses—but also, the grid as the people and institutions that run it.


Gretchen Bakke: It's not just the infrastructure. It's also that the grid is a system for delivering electricity, but it's also a system for making money.


Alex: So when we talk about what's standing in the way is the grid, we're talking about a living, breathing sort of political social entity, as well as an assemblage of wires and technology.


Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, exactly. Like, it's always being changed and pushed around, and it has to deal with us.


Alex: Us. People. Always the problem. Sometimes the solution. And today, we are going to be hearing about the grid in all its magnificence. Which is to say, the people behind the grid, the people who built it, the people who are making money from it, and how those people and the grid they've built are now in some ways standing in the way of something cheaper, cleaner, and better for the world. My conversation with Gretchen Bakke about how we got our grid—and how we get a better one—that's coming up after the break.


[00:08:11.08]***


Alex: So we're gonna start in the beginning. In the beginning, there was no light—bulbs. What there were instead were gas lamps. This was in the late 1800's, when most city streets were lit with gas. But there was this thing that people had been experimenting with called electricity, and folks realized, hey, you can make lights with this. One person who realized this was a man we've all heard of: Thomas Edison. The other was a man that we haven't heard of very often, his 1800's business rival Charles Brush, who had a light that he called the arc light.


Gretchen Bakke: What they agreed on was that what electricity would be good for is lighting.


Alex: Okay.


Gretchen Bakke: At the start. And that's because there was this idea that that's what people would pay for.


Alex: Uh-huh.


Gretchen Bakke: And "people" meaning, sort of downtowns. There was all of this—the darkness and crime was a big issue in the late 1800s. We're talking now about the late 1800s. So street lighting. But then also lighting newspapers. This was a big one. And then the offices of very rich people, and then the homes of very rich people. And then, to a certain degree, large sort of manufacturies.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Gretchen Bakke: And so that was the start, it was just light.


Alex: But remember: this is the world before our modern grid, where every home has multiple electrical outlets. Back then, if you wanted to have an electric light, you couldn't just buy Brush's or Edison's light bulbs, you also needed to make your own electricity to power those bulbs. Which meant installing a power plant—then called a dynamo—nearby or even on site. Many of these dynamos ran on coal.


Alex: And Brush was going around saying, like, "Hey factory owner, don't use gas to light your factory, use my amazing electric light."


Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, exactly.


Alex: "And all you have to do is put up these sockets. And oh, by the way, you have to put a gigantic coal-burning dynamo also on your property."


Gretchen Bakke: [laughs] Basically. You have to put a giant coal-burning dynamo near your property. And you have to remember, like, at this time, coal was brought in by a horse. So you have this, like, stream of horses carrying coal, right?


Alex: Uh-huh.


Gretchen Bakke: And then crapping on your streets. And so there's, like, mud and horse crap and coal dust. And, you know, you're shoveling this coal into the dynamo.


Alex: Meanwhile, people are discovering new uses for this electricity thing. Factories are replacing their steam-powered equipment with electric equipment. Streetcars can now run on electricity. But all these new uses also create a problem, because each new use of electricity required its own set of wires and its own power plant.


Gretchen Bakke: And that was because Edison's current, which is direct current, it only—you had to use it at the voltage that you produced it.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Gretchen Bakke: And that meant that producing a current for a lighting system took a very different amount of energy than producing enough energy to move a streetcar full of commuters, for example. And so every time anyone would invent a new use for electricity, you had to build a new power plant and a new set of wires.


Alex: [laughs] Okay.


Gretchen Bakke: And so this was really the problem, you know? Like, by the late 1880s, in places that were sort of moving toward electrification like New York, like Chicago, you have all of these just competing systems that are infrastructured into the space.


Alex: There's a photo in your book of, like, just, a street in, like ...


Gretchen Bakke: 1888.


Alex: 1888. With just, like, wires everywhere. We had so many wires.


Gretchen Bakke: Yeah, it was a mess.


Alex: So what brought us from this mayhem to the standardized system we have today, where you can plug anything from a lamp to an electric lawnmower into the same exact outlet? Well, a huge step was a tech breakthrough, in part by an inventor named Nikola Tesla.


Gretchen Bakke: The actual Tesla, the actual Nikola Tesla. Not the car, but the actual guy.


Alex: Tesla was a pioneer in the use of alternating current. Edison in the beginning was using something called direct current, but alternating current had many advantages. For one, a system using alternating current could easily change voltages, meaning that the same power station could be used to power the lights and the street cars. Also, alternating current allowed for much higher voltages.


Gretchen Bakke: When the voltage is really high, you can transmit it much further.


Alex: What did that do for the first time?


Gretchen Bakke: What it did for the first time is it meant that you could make power far away from where you used it. And that is a remarkable thing.


Alex: And this remarkable technology was used to build one of the world's first large-scale offsite power plants. This was in 1895 at Niagara Falls. So the builders harnessed the tremendous energy of the water in the Niagara River to spin huge turbines to make electricity. And then that electricity was sent around 20 miles away to a bunch of factories in Buffalo.


Gretchen Bakke: This capacity to have a customer base and have electrical generation very, very far away from each other was what we got at Niagara Falls, thanks to also this invention of alternating current.


Alex: So I don't know. A wire carrying electricity 20 miles? It might sound small, but it was a huge conceptual leap. The generation of electricity and the use of it disconnected. The people using the electricity in the factory never had to think about where it came from. It wasn't literally in their faces in the form of coal dust and horse manure odor. The power was just there.


Alex: And it's that conceptual leap that allowed what happened next, the final step in what would become the modern grid. Someone needed to come in and make this divorce between electricity generation and electricity use complete. Someone needed to make the case to factory owners, "Hey, you know what? You don't need to worry about building a huge coal plant on site, or even a gigantic turbine at Niagara Falls to run your factories. You just run your factories, I'll handle the electricity." And in the early 1900s, someone made that case.


Gretchen Bakke: And that was Samuel Insull in Chicago.


Alex: There was one person.


Gretchen Bakke: One person. Yeah, one person.


Alex: There was a person who sort of came up with the idea of, like—so he's in some ways you could sort of think of him as the inventor of the utility.


Gretchen Bakke: Yes. He is the inventor of the utility. He's Thomas Edison's personal secretary. He's from England originally. And before Samuel Insull, the way that you made money on electricity was to sell private plants.


Alex: In other words, selling light bulbs and coal dynamos to rich families and apartment landlords. Insull thought there has to be a way to make money just selling the electricity without having to sell the private plants. "If I can make the electricity myself at my own power plant," he thought, "I could sell it to rich families and apartment landlords, and save them the hassle of generating it themselves. And maybe I'll get rich in the process."


Alex: There was a problem with this plan though, and that problem was variable demand. Most people aren't using electricity 24 hours a day. For example, an apartment building is mostly using electricity for light in the hours between when people get home from work and when they finally go to bed. But a big, coal-fired power plant, like the kind Insull would need to make this plan come to fruition, could take 24 hours just to start up. So you can't stop it and start it depending on when people need electricity. You have to keep it running 24 hours a day so the electricity is there when people need it. But you don't want to just be making electricity no one is using, because running plants to make electricity costs money. And so he went on the hunt for other electricity customers who could be buying his electricity at other times of the day.


Gretchen Bakke: So he looks at the traction companies, the streetcar companies, which have their own—are producing their own electricity. And that's the commute. So that's the morning and evening commute. So he tries to get those guys.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Gretchen Bakke: He looks at manufacturing, that's midday.


Alex: He's got the streetcars in the morning, he's got the middle of the day with the manufacturers, he's got the evening time with all of us turning on all our lights. What does he do at night?


Gretchen Bakke: Continues to try to court anybody who will run their factory at night, to run it at night. And the reason he could convince these companies and people to do this is because he was basically saying, You're maintaining this, you know, dynamo in your basement, and that takes—so that's a lot of work, right? So I can take that work away from you and we can do it, and then we'll just sell you the electricity. And we'll maintain the system."


Alex: Right.


Gretchen Bakke: Right?


Alex: And that makes a lot of sense.


Gretchen Bakke: It makes a lot of sense.


Alex: If somebody else can figure out a way of, like, just give me the electricity, and don't worry about the coal and the maintaining of the dynamo or whatever, that makes sense.


Gretchen Bakke: Exactly. And the fires. Because there were also a lot of fires.


Alex: Right. [laughs] And the smoke.


Gretchen Bakke: And the smoke.


Alex: And the deadly coal dust.


Gretchen Bakke: Yeah.


Alex: And once you have a big plant set up that can generate tons of electricity, and you have a bunch of buyers for that electricity throughout the day, you can achieve something that wasn't possible in the early days of electrification: returns to scale. Making a big, more powerful plant and selling electricity to lots of different users meant that Insull was able to price his electricity more cheaply.


Gretchen Bakke: So he's the one who figures out that it shouldn't be an elite product, but a mass product.


Alex: Right.


Gretchen Bakke: And he realizes that you can price it cheap because he's saving money by not having to turn off his plant.


Alex: Got it.


Gretchen Bakke: Right? So he's making these incremental earnings.


Alex: So far so good. But Insull thought, "This plan will only work if there aren't other people trying to do what I'm doing." In other words, Insull believed this idea—huge power plant, selling electricity to everyone—is what's called a natural monopoly. And a natural monopoly is sort of the opposite of what most of us think when we think monopoly. In a traditional monopoly, like the kind Teddy Roosevelt was busting up when he went after US Steel, there's a company that gets so powerful, it controls the entire supply of something, and therefore can sell it at super high prices because it's killed off all its competitors. Traditional monopolies mean higher prices for consumers.


Alex: But there's this concept of a natural monopoly where, the argument goes, in certain situations, a monopoly is the most efficient and beneficial arrangement for consumers. And Insull argued electricity generation was the perfect example of an industry where a natural monopoly made sense. Because with electricity generation, the more competition there is, the more companies fighting to provide electricity for people, the more they will be building their own infrastructure. And that doesn't make sense, right? One separate power plant and set of wires delivering electricity to you, another plant and set of wires delivering it to your neighbor. It's much more efficient to have the same plant and set of wires delivering electricity to both of you.


Alex: And, the theory goes, it's also cheaper for the consumer as well because it costs lots of money to build wires and power plants, and so if you do it just once and spread the cost over a much broader base of consumers, each individual consumer pays less. Now I should say, not everyone agrees that there's even such a thing as a natural monopoly, and there are huge economics rabbit holes you can go down about this if you want to. Insull, though, he certainly believed it, and he lobbied the government to help him achieve it.


Alex: He'd need the government to say, in effect, only one company is allowed to provide electricity in this one area. And so Insull went to the government and said, "Will you do that for me?"


Gretchen Bakke: He says, "Could you please give me total control over a geography?" And in his case, it was Chicagoland. "And in exchange for that, I will not fleece the customer."


Alex: Hmm.


Gretchen Bakke: "So you can set the price for this electricity."


Alex: Right.


Gretchen Bakke: "And you can regulate me so that you can make sure that I'm not, like, a bad monopoly." Because at that point we're already in the 1910s, right? At that point the monopolies are being shut down.


Alex: Mm-hmm. Right.


Gretchen Bakke: And the government says, "This seems perfectly reasonable to us." And his point at that time was really clear to everybody: we're 30 years into electrification, and we know that competition is not making the product cheaper.


Alex: Right.


Gretchen Bakke: Because what you have with competition is too many wires because everybody's building these parallel systems to compete with each other. So he has a really strong case. And once he does that, like, essentially every hopeful burgeoning utility man takes the same model. So we see this thing just spread over all of America, anywhere where there is a dense population.


Alex: All these Insull-style regulated utilities start popping up in dense urban centers all over the country. And as electricity becomes more widespread, demand for it continues to grow in less densely-populated areas. Eventually, the government gets involved with the Rural Electrification Act, which brought electricity to the rest of the United States. And these Insull-style government-regulated utilities continued to flourish. With government guaranteed profits, it seemed like nothing could get in their way. That is, until everything broke. That's coming up after the break.


[00:21:58.08]***


Alex: Welcome back. We're talking with anthropologist Gretchen Bakke about the grid. So in the decades Samuel Insull was running his utility in Chicago, he started to notice something: the technology of producing electricity with a coal-fired power plant kept getting more efficient.


Gretchen Bakke: So he was producing more electricity with less coal, so you could always make a bigger, more efficient power plant and sell electricity for cheaper.


Alex: And still make your regulated profit.


Gretchen Bakke: Absolutely. And still make your regulated profit.


Alex: It felt like win-win for everyone. Like, the customers are happy, but the utility, the operators are still happy because, like, look, we're still making our profits.


Gretchen Bakke: Yeah. And one of the reasons they're still making their profits is that, even though electricity per kilowatt hour is getting cheaper, the amount of electricity that people are using is always going up. So because we're getting dishwashers and dryers and hair dryers and TV sets ...


Alex: Televisions and—yes.


Gretchen Bakke: ... and all this, like, awesome stuff. So there were two truths to the utility business throughout the 20th century, until the 1970s, late 1960s. One is that the efficiency of power plants would always go up.


Alex: Mm-hmm.


Gretchen Bakke: And two was that customer demand would always go up.


Alex: Right.


Gretchen Bakke: And that held for 70 years. That's a long time, right? So essentially, everybody who worked in early electrification thought it was true. And then everyone who worked in mid-century running a utility understood it to be true because they'd already been taught it by this other generation, that efficiency would always increase. And it held for so long that everybody forgot that it was impossible.


Alex: In the late 1960s and early '70s, reality hit us—hard. One of the first blows? The 1970's oil crisis.


[NEWS CLIP: Gasoline shortages are spreading across the country. Odd/even service, gasoline lines and closed gas stations are becoming increasingly common.]


Alex: This might surprise some of our younger listeners—I actually remember this. I was a kid around this time. Oil prices skyrocketed, and that made gas prices go higher, but also prices of lots of other oil products. Diesel for power plants, for example, heating oil for boilers. And because all of that was getting more expensive, people who ran these machines started looking for alternatives. One alternative they used? Coal.


Gretchen Bakke: Demand for coal goes way up. That then means that the utilities are now having to pay more money for the input into their system.


Alex: And because of this, prices for electricity started to do something they hadn't done before—go up. And that meant people began to do something they hadn't done before: they started using less electricity. Our president was even telling us to do that. Here's then-President Jimmy Carter.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jimmy Carter: All of us must learn to waste less energy. Simply by keeping our thermostats, for instance, at 65 degrees in the daytime and 55 degrees at night, we could save half the current shortage of natural gas.]


Alex: Add to all of this, the environmental movement was pushing back against pollution, to which coal was a big contributor. And decades after most of us had forgotten where our electricity comes from—exactly as Samuel Insull had hoped for—we all started to pay attention again. Our electricity was coming from these big plants that spewed pollution and were vulnerable to geopolitical shocks. Maybe we should be thinking about something new.


Alex: People started to look more at renewable energy. Jimmy Carter famously installed solar panels on the roof of the White House, which incidentally, were removed during the administration of his successor, Ronald Reagan. And Congress started passing laws. There was one in 1978 that opened the door for small renewable energy producers to be able to operate. And then another big one that was implemented in 2000 after almost a decade of legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court that created a wholesale market for electricity. This opened the door for some states to separate generation from transmission, saying to utilities, in effect, "You can't be in the business of making electricity anymore, just delivering it." This meant, for the first time in decades, any company that felt it could make electricity competitively could start up a plant and sell the electricity to the utility.


Alex: This opened the way for lots of things: an explosion in natural gas power plants in the early 2000s. But also, it opened the way for a smaller but still dramatic expansion of renewable energy. Lots of wind and solar projects started after these changes, especially as technology for renewables improved and prices went down.


Gretchen Bakke: The crack that's kind of opened up is for, in fact, the private plant to return. So suddenly it's like you can hear the sucking noise as we're pulled backwards to the 1880s.


Alex: In other words, on-site generation, just like it used to be with the coal dynamo in the basement, but instead with free energy from the sun on the roof. And as wonderful as this may be for you, a homeowner in Hawaii with solar panels on your roof, and for the world, it's a disaster for the old business model of the grid, which was making electricity and selling it to us.


Alex: And so we're in this weird place. You've got different kinds of generation like wind and solar that are cheap and renewable and plentiful, but that the current grid wasn't really set up to handle, because they're variable. What if you need electricity, but the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining. You can't just turn on the wind the same way you can dump more coal into a coal plant. And so you've got a system of utilities still grappling with these technological challenges, and with the fact that their monopoly over electricity generation was legislated away.


Alex: And you've got increasing numbers of people and institutions saying, essentially, "We're going back to the 1880s, folks, and making our own power. Thanks very much." After existing in an environment that was remarkably stable for the better part of a century, the utilities are now seeing change wherever it looks. And they are responding to all that change in many, many ways.


Alex: Some utilities seem like they're resisting. In 2015, for example, an environmental group installed solar panels on a North Carolina church and started selling that electricity to the church for half the price that the utility was selling it to them. The utility, Duke Energy, sued them, and after a legal battle, they won. The environmental group was fined $60,000 for trying to provide electricity.


Alex: Other utilities have allowed customers to put up solar panels and sell that power back to the grid, but they charge a fee. We looked at a utility in Alabama that charges around $25 a month to solar customers. And these fees have a big impact on how many people actually adopt rooftop solar.


Alex: And this is what Gretchen refers to as "The grid in all its magnificence." The people who grew up with this very stable, very reliable business model of the grid, realizing the world has changed, but not figuring out how to move forward with it, and instead scrambling to hang on to the way it was.


Alex: What we have is we have this grid which, you know, was the system under which we electrified the United States with, like, lots and lots of help from government, et cetera. But now we have the need and the possibility, and in fact, the economic incentive to start using, adopting these renewable technologies. But the way we're set up is, like, based on this other model.


Gretchen Bakke: Exactly.


Alex: What's gonna happen? [laughs]


Gretchen Bakke: The question is: how do we rethink the grid in order to allow it to work with many small producers—and this can be small solar or small wind—in a way which makes it reliable, and also that takes advantage of the ability of these small producers to sometimes take themselves off of the larger system so that what you can sort of say is at this particular moment in time, all y'all who have solar systems, could you please withdraw from the grid, use your home solar system?


Alex: Right.


Gretchen Bakke: So we're kind of in this Insull moment where there's this space for all of this creativity and reimagination. And there are thousands of people who are trying to do that, just that.


Alex: In other words, to come up with something akin to Insull's original innovation, where he looked at the landscape of early 1900s America, said "Here's the need, here's the technology. How do we organize it into a reliable business model?" The single innovation he came up with powered that industry for decades. And the industry didn't really need to innovate further—Insull's idea kept working and working. Now the industry does need to innovate again. It needs to figure out new business models. How, for example, should a utility plan for a house with its own solar panels? Is that house an electricity consumer? It might be on cloudy days. Or as an electricity provider? It might be that on super sunny days, when the grid is overburdened and needs every bit of electricity it can get.


Alex: Some utilities have decided we're not gonna just try to fight this or fine this out of existence. We are going to start coming up with creative business plans and creative technological solutions to meet this situation.


Alex: Green Mountain Power, for example, the utility in Vermont, is known for this. They're trying all sorts of things to support this transition—everything from "cow power," paying local farmers to transform cow waste into electricity, to building a solar microgrid that doubles as battery storage for an emergency evacuation center at a high school. They've also installed a first-of-a-kind charger for EVs that allows the grid to draw power from the electric vehicles during moments of peak demand. Your EV's battery can fill in if there's high demand on the grid.


Alex: Hawaiian Electric, another utility, has plans to replace a coal plant that generates about 20 percent of Oahu's electricity with essentially a giant battery that is planned to eventually be charged with renewable projects. Hawaii generates a ton of solar power—not surprisingly. Sometimes at midday it generates more than the state even needs, so battery installations will help the state harness that energy to use at night.


Alex: And then there are the people that are saying, "Maybe we don't need utilities at all. At least not in the way we've had them." One of the largest rooftop solar companies, SunRun, just hired a new CEO. Her previous job was as head of Green Mountain Power, the utility in Vermont. All of this makes Gretchen Bakke feel, well ...


Gretchen Bakke: Hopeful, I guess, is always how I feel about it. I don't see, like, you know, the impending doom of the utility systems. And a lot of other people are coming into business and, you know, now private people can build a transmission line. If you want to build a long distance power line, you can do that with your friends.


Alex: Right. [laughs]


Gretchen Bakke: That's new!


Alex: When you look at everything you've learned about the grid, and sort of all the research you've done in this topic and sort of like the adoption of renewables, et cetera, and you look into the future, how screwed are we?


Gretchen Bakke: So if we're talking about transforming electricity systems to run on renewables, and also being able to make those renewables without using fossil fuels, we're not very screwed. It's not hard to make 30 percent of our electricity renewably right now. That happens at a lot of places. It's not hard to make 70 percent of our electricity renewably. So that's where we're at. So renewably-powered electricity? Yeah, absolutely possible.


Alex: But it's gonna take a lot of work to make the grid, in all its magnificence, ready for that transition. And that brings us to—you guessed it—our patented How to Save a Planet calls to action. And people, I'm gonna level with you. For the next little while, our call to action is gonna be sounding familiar from episode to episode. And that's because we, right now, have a historic opportunity, and we think that there's one action that is the most meaningful action to take right now. Right now, Congress is considering a huge infrastructure bill that has the potential to clear away a lot of the remaining barriers that are in place. For example, in that bill there is a $73-billion proposal to update our electricity grid so that it will be ready for more renewable energy. And so our call to action? Let your legislators know that you think passing this legislation is important. The way you let them know is super simple: visit call4climate.com—that's call, C-A-L-L, the number 4, climate.com, and you'll find all the information you need to figure out who your Congresspeople are and a script to help you with your call.


Alex: Our newsletter this week will have links to that as well as some extra reading for the grid-curious on grid history, grid resilience, microgrids. You can subscribe to that at Howtosaveaplanet.show. And you can also check out our calls to action archive for all the actions we've recommended on the show at Howtosaveaplanet.show/actions. If you take an action we recommend, we'd love to hear from you about it. Write to us at Howtosaveaplanet.show/contact. We're also on Instagram and Twitter @How2saveaplanet with the number 2.


Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Alex Blumberg, and—for one more episode—by the amazing Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. This episode was produced by Anna Ladd. Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis and Rachel Waldholz. Our supervising producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design and mixing by Peter Leonard, with original music by Peter Leonard and Emma Munger. Our fact-checker this episode is James Gaines. Thanks to all of you for listening. We'll see you next week!