You reach over and, without a thought, flip a switch. Seconds later, you flip another. Then another. And somewhere out of sight, in ways that the vast majority of us will never even try to comprehend, every flipped switch sets off a string of signals that result in something electrical turning on. Or off. Like magic.
But it's not magic, as we learn during blackouts, when those switches stop working. Fueling the bright lights and whirring blades and busy TVs — when it works — is a complex system known as a power grid, comprising a generator, transmitters, transformer, substation, and those poles and wires that crisscross every urban and suburban vista so ubiquitously that we visually tune them out. The grid pours power into our hands ... until it doesn't.
North America's power grids are akin to dinosaurs, argues environmental journalist Peter Asmus, whose book Introduction to Energy in California is new from UC Press. Most of our grids "were installed at around the same time as the telephone system," and thus are too antiquated to match rapidly rising energy needs: "Between 1975 and 2004, US electricity demand grew by more than 100 percent," Asmus points out, "while spending on grid upgrades declined by 50 percent."
Uh-oh. That's why in his richly illustrated new volume, which he will discuss at University Press Books (2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) on Tuesday, September 29, Asmus strives to clarify for the average consumer what energy is, where it comes from, which alternative sources are being tried around the world, and which others might be found henceforth. Into the mix go fossil fuels, wind, liquefied natural gas, nuclear power, and more. For the Marin County author, part of the challenge was "to look at energy in a comprehensive and nonpoliticized way. The theme that runs through the book is that California has always gone out on a limb and embraced nearly every energy source with wide-eyed enthusiasm." This enthusiasm and the state's trial-and-error track record are giving us a headstart in meeting what Asmus calls "the need for a more nimble, intelligent power grid."
Fresh from editing the University of Wisconsin's radical Daily Cardinal, the young Asmus "went into shock" when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. He processed that shock throughout that decade as a political journalist for the Sacramento Bee and San Jose Mercury News, then branched out into environmental reportage with an investigative piece that "revealed the Reagan Administration's plans to burn the nation's most dangerous toxins in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of California." That story led to a book, In Search of Environmental Excellence.
Asmus' other volumes include Reinventing Electric Utilities: Competition, Citizen Action and Clean Power and Reaping the Wind: How Mechanical Wizards, Visionaries and Profiteers Helped Shape our Energy Future. These days, he's excited about microgrids and about transitioning "from dependence on fossil fuels to a local-food, local-energy, and local-farm future." Fortuitously, he's surrounded by evidence and ideas, as "California experiments ... are showing the way" to "things like cool-roof technologies and better planning of zero-energy buildings and communities." Power on. 5:30 p.m., free. UniversityPressBooks.com
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