Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Grid

The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World
© 2007 Phillip Schewe
310 pages


In every room there sits a caged beast waiting to cause mischief, but which most of the time  is put to honest work, instead.  When Thomas Edison began selling electrical service for artificial illumination in the close of the 19th century, did he realize how radically he would transform the world?  Steam engines went a long way, but they never took up residence in the house.  At the opening of the 21st century, homes are linked together not just by ribbons of asphalt but by buzzing wires overhead, and those are only the first part of a complicated apparatus that can sink an economy for days if it hiccoughs.  Phillip Schewe's The Grid is a layman's introduction to the world of the electrical grid,  an educational sampler.  He lightly touches on the grid's early history,   moves into the social relevance of electricity,  writes about some of the aspects of electrical infrastructure, and then looks to the future.

 It is as the author describes it, a "journey" -- rather like passing through a city on a bus and catching a sight of very interesting things but not being able to get out to spend time studying them. The early book is quite jumpy, as the reader passes from early electrical enterprise straight to electricity being seen as vital infrastructure that the government can't leave to the hands of the people who paid to create it.  The latter half is more integrated, especially as Schewe uses his chapter on the home's internal electric works to argue that the future of electricity may be more distributive,  with solar-paneled homes supplying much of their own electricity and sometimes contributing their excess into the grid. This is followed by a chapter on nuclear plants, the concentrated alternative.  The Grid has a frustrating lack of focus, though, and this is worsened by the author's creative gifts.  His subject may be mechanical infrastructure, but Schewe waxes lyrical about it -- literally,  at one point offering commentary in verse form and filling another paragraph with so many allusions to Hamlet that one wonders if he had a quota. Although electricity is regarded by most everyone in the book as an unmitigated good, Schewe vainly includes Lewis Mumford and Henry David Thoreau as counters, both being technological critics, but neither really bares their teeth;  it's as impact as someone musing on how over-much we depend on electricity when there's an outage, and then forgetting about it as soon as the lights pop back on.   It was a nice gesture, though.   The Grid is thus  tantalizingly incomplete,  offering just a taste and then charging ahead into China or Africa to look for different things to sample.

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