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America Plugs In

David E. Nye

The Grid: A Journey through the Heart of Our Electrified World. Phillip F. Schewe. iv + 311 pp. Joseph Henry Press, 2007. $27.95.

Thomas Edison opened the first electrical utility 125 years ago in New York. Using direct current, he hoped to best the gas companies and provide light and power to one community at a time. The idea of regional and national grids based on alternating current emerged only later. These networks and their eventual expansion across North America are Phillip F. Schewe's subjects in The Grid: A Journey through the Heart of Our Electrified World. As a physicist who knows his Thoreau, Schewe appreciates electrical technology but keeps it in perspective. He regards building and maintaining an electrical network as "a poetic deed," one fraught with social, economic and environmental dangers.

The book opens with an account of the blackout that spread across many Northeastern and Midwestern states and much of lower Canada on August 14, 2003. Electrical power has become so pervasive and all-encompassing that, before they lost service that day, the 50 million people affected probably took electricity as much for granted as the air they breathed. But getting trapped in elevators and subways or just being forced to sit in dark homes and offices without televisions, computers or air conditioning presumably prompted them to give a little more thought to how their electricity is provided.

In the course of the first third of the book, Schewe briefly reviews early electrical pioneers from Hans Christian Oersted to Michael Faraday; explains basic terms such as watts, volts and amps; surveys the creation and development of the American grid by such figures as Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse and Samuel Insull; and examines the development of various power-generation and distribution systems, discussing Soviet electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the birth of atomic energy and the expansion of Consolidated Edison in New York.

The pace of the narrative then slows in two chapters devoted to the great Northeastern blackout of 1965, which Schewe presents as the pivotal moment when the ubiquity and vulnerability of centralized power generation first became painfully apparent. He focuses not on the malfunctioning relay that sent a cascade of failures through the system but rather on how complexity theory can model (though not precisely predict) such events.

The remainder of the book is less historical than topical. Schewe believes deregulation was badly executed in California but nevertheless finds it desirable. He surveys possible energy sources, arguing for combining hydro, gas, nuclear, solar, wind and biomass. He advocates decentralizing the power supply in a more interactive grid and recounts how a utility in Idaho (which he considers to be representative) operates and plans for the future. Explaining that surging energy usage in Asia and Africa could overwhelm environmental limits, he describes how some emerging technologies might be used to curb that demand.

In the final chapter, Schewe compares grid reliability in the United States with that in other nations (it's worse than in parts of Europe but better than in most places) and meditates on the centrality of electricity to the first Moon landing. It would have been impossible to launch the flight, operate the equipment and communicate with the crew without putting a mini-grid into space. Apollo 11 contained 15 miles of electrical wiring. Furthermore, so many TV sets were turned on around the world during the event that electrical demand surged 200 megawatts above normal in New York City and was even higher in Tokyo.

Schewe presents electrification as a part of human evolution, a "handy tool" that has helped our species to flourish and has been used to create global awareness and new kinds of knowledge. In his view, the grid exemplifies what Lewis Mumford termed "man's capacity for creating in his own image a symbolic world that both cloudily mirrors and yet transcends his immediate environment."

This entertaining book is part of a series on science, technology and health from the Joseph Henry Press, an imprint of the National Academies Press. Schewe's prose is lucid, his examples are clear, and he finds ingenious ways to help readers to see how their lives and possessions are inseparable from the fabric of the grid.

But storytelling for the general reader exacts a price. The Grid is not theoretical. For example, Schewe does not adjudicate between path-dependence theory (which is often used by economic historians) and the concept of technological momentum worked out by Thomas Hughes in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (which has been embraced by many historians of technology). Nor does he explain the early justifications for "natural monopoly," the difficulties of utility regulation and rate-making, or the complex economics of deregulation. Nor is this investigative journalism aimed at uncovering Enron's chicanery or the violation of pollution laws.

Nonetheless, the book does offer a useful historical overview of the grid's invention, its problems and possible technical improvements to it, together with engaging descriptions of equipment, power stations, hydroelectric dams, solar cells and nuclear reactors. Combining a physicist's understanding of electricity with a journalist's instinct for human interest, Schewe has provided a useful introduction to the development of the electrical system.

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