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'The Grid' Author On How Texas Crisis Highlights A Fragile U.S. Infrastructure


The storm in Texas highlights just how fragile U.S. infrastructure can be, and so you might wonder if this problem extends beyond Texas. It does. In their most recent report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. energy infrastructure a D-plus, stating, quote, "without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions," unquote.

We wanted to learn more about this, so we called Gretchen Bakke. She is the author of "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future," which examines the history of electrical power and its current challenges. When we spoke earlier today, she explained the problems in Texas are partly due to its independence from the U.S. power grid.

GRETCHEN BAKKE: With Texas, because they are not connected, because they're making their own electricity for themselves, they've had all of this freedom, right? But at the same time, that means that they've had no oversight. And there's a very fierce market - right? - that's happening there too. So there's been a lot of worry or a lot of attention paid to how to make money in this very tiny - I mean, Texas is big, but not compared to, like, the West Coast power grid.

So within this tiny kind of electricity community, not that much money is being put into infrastructure, into very simple things that we know we need, which is like a little jacket, for example, that you put on an instrumentation panel which stays outside, right? Because you don't expect the natural gas pipelines to freeze in Texas, right? This is another problem. You don't expect a coal pile to freeze solid so that you can't get the coal into your power plant. You don't expect your wind turbines not to work.

But all of these things are merely slight changes or more care taken to the upkeep of the actual physical infrastructure that then is compounded by the fact that you can't actually import electricity into Texas - not all of Texas, but the parts which have lost power.

M MARTIN: So what is the broader lesson here? What needs to happen now with the U.S. electric grid? I mean, what should we be thinking about now?

BAKKE: There's two different things that need to happen to the electric grid right now. The first is what's called hardening - and this is what we're talking about in Texas - where you just sort of spend a little bit of time and attention figuring out what you need to do in this particular place in order to make the system as it is more resilient, right? You need to put a little jacket on your instrumentation panels.

And secondarily, we need to be doing something else, which is thinking about how it is we can run an electricity system on renewable resources or carbon-free resources, since nuclear really - in some parts of the country is really a backbone to the electricity system. But it wasn't the turbines that - the wind turbines that were the problem in Texas. It wasn't the solar, really, that was a problem in Texas.

And that kind of grid reimagining electricity that's being made and moves differently and is used differently - that will give you, actually, the possibility to say things like, what happens if in Austin people had solar panels on their roofs and were allowed to use that electricity to keep their own power on? Because now in the U.S., you have to feed solar power back into the bigger grid. And so those are very slight changes of thinking, and I think that's what actually matters - so to harden the grid, yes, but also to think, we're in the 21st century.

Like, think about how we can do the whole thing better - not by tearing it out, but by slowly integrating, changing, rethinking, reimagining what the world could be like without actually depending on the things. The fossil fuels - we love them. We built the grid to work with them. We built the economy to work with them, right? But that's what's causing these kinds of weird weather events.

M MARTIN: I think most of us outside of Texas were wondering, like, why it is that the governor of Texas immediately went on one of the conservative, you know, talk shows to defend fossil fuels and to criticize renewables. And a lot of us sort of found that puzzling since a fraction of the energy sourcing in Texas is from renewables. And I take your point that it's a leader in that. In fact, they have sort of a greater percentage than other places. But why was there this rush to criticize renewables? It just seemed strange to us. Can you explain that?

BAKKE: There is something going on that relates conservative politics to what President Trump had called our kind of fuel, our kind of power. And there's a conservativism to this very material, historical, known, reliable energy source that we command. So the idea that you can rely upon fossil fuels - the fossil fuels are the - they're sort of the safety blanket, and that the incoming or the risky thing is this variable renewable power sources.

And by variable, I mean you can't turn up a wind turbine - right? - because it's running at the speed of the wind. So if it's running at maximum, it's the speed of the wind. You can turn up - if your pipeline isn't frozen, you can turn up natural gas. If your pile of coal isn't frozen, you can turn up your coal-burning power plant. And that means that it's us deciding, not nature deciding. And there's something very, very sure-feeling about that.

That maps on in some sort of strange way to a set of political persuasions. So it's not all - many Republicans are for especially solar power because it allows for a kind of independence and self-sufficiency, right? It's not divided merely on party lines. But in this moment, it was not surprising that there was this sort of point to the - you know, here's the danger. It's the thing we can't control, right? The thing we can't control is the danger.

M MARTIN: So it's interesting. It's not necessarily the fundamentals. It's how people feel about it.

BAKKE: Exactly. I'm an anthropologist - right? - so I'm not an electrical engineer writing about the electric power grid. And it aligned as it was designed and as we've changed it over the past 120 years - it aligns absolutely to the particularity of American values, business values and also cultural values over time. We're always changing this infrastructure. We're always intervening in it. And now we're saying, let's make power renewably. Oh, dear, right? Like, this is a huge technological problem. But that problem comes from our value system.

M MARTIN: That is Gretchen Bakke. She teaches anthropology at Humboldt University in Berlin. She's the author of "The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans And Our Energy Future."

Professor Bakke, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us.

BAKKE: Yeah. Thank you for inviting me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM'S "LICORICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.