People around the world answered a call today to “fire the grid” this morning at 11:11am Greenwich Mean Time (7:11am EST). Unfortunately they’re not firing the grid that concerns me — the power grid — but rather the ‘earth grid’. Seems a near-death experience followed by other-worldly “light beings” inspired the organizer to call for a global spiritual embrace of the planet.
Too bad. I for one thought that they were planning to lay-off electricity for a global hour, much as TV TurnOff Week frees our minds each April. Turning off the grid could be equally instructive.
The hour without power would be an opportunity to appreciate the grid, which has been called the greatest machine ever built and yet is all too often taken for granted. We should pay it heed, because the power grid needs to be modernized if it’s to shoulder increasing loads of clean-but-intermittent renewable energy.
At present investment is low. Universities have eliminated much of their research and teaching related to high-voltage power transmission. The power industry, meanwhile, spends just 0.3 percent of revenues on R&D, one of the lowest rates for any industrial sector. As one power expert lamented during an interview, “We’re beat out easily by the pet food manufacturers.”
Turning off the grid would also serve as a moment to reflect on our growing dependence on the various devices we plug into the power grid — some that we could easily get by without and others that may aggravate the stress and disconnectedness of modern life.
Science writer Phillip Schewe captured that last point succinctly in his wonderfully written precis on modern power systems: The Grid. Describing New Yorkers’ experiences of the August 14, 2003 blackout — the largest power system failure in history — Schewe writes that “after complaining about spoiled food or lost computer files” many also expressed a “sort of joy” at the conversations they enjoyed and the moments they spent with their children: “Provided it wasn’t too inconvenient, the absence of electricity was welcome. At least for a night.”
In The Grid Schewe toys with making the blackout a monthly affair, then rejects it as impractical. But one hour a year might not be so bad…