Electricity, like gasoline, is something we often take for granted. We complain that it costs too much, yet it’s both relatively cheap and abundant. When we throw a switch, the lights come on. Most Americans have grown up with this convenience, so we don’t give much thought to the engineering feats that make it possible.
My grandfather became an electrician in the 1920s because he saw it as a growth industry. In fact, he was the only electrician in my hometown in central Pennsylvania for many years. My father, who worked with him back then, broke with convention and had our oil furnace ripped out of the basement before I was born. He installed electric heat because he wanted to support the use of electricity.
Today promoting electricity for household use is almost, like, well, bringing coals to Newcastle. Usage continues to rise, and states like Texas are struggling to keep up with demand. Electricity has become commonplace because of billions of dollars invested in expanding power grids for more than a century. But for all that investment, the grid structure hasn’t changed much since my grandfather’s days. Large, centralized power plants generate electricity and send it across transmission lines to cities and towns served by a particular regional grid. That’s great, as far as it goes, but the system remains fragmented. If Texas runs short of power, it can’t simply order extra electricity from, say Kansas, because there’s no interconnection.
For years, monopoly utilities protected this setup. After all, they were guaranteed a steady rate of return by state regulators. Power flowed in only one direction—from generating plants outward. Accepting power directly into the grid from renewable sources like wind turbines and solar panels, they argued, would cause voltage to collapse and trigger blackouts—access to the wind and sun fluctuates too greatly. The only way to steadily keep the lights on was for utilities to control the flow of power from their own plants.
Michael Skelly wasn’t buying it. By 2009, he’d already built a successful wind farm operator, Houston-based Horizon Wind, and had decided to take on a new challenge: integrating wind and solar power into the nation’s grids.
Skelly is the focus of a new book, Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Wall Street Journal reporter (and Austinite) Russell Gold. As an energy writer in Houston, I encountered Skelly regularly—we sat together on panels, I interviewed him, and he even helped me track down sources for Texas Monthly articles. He’s a captivating guy, and he can be both intense and affable, but the prospect of an entire book about him gave me pause. Outside of Houston and energy-nerd circles, does anyone know Skelly? Is he really book-worthy?
Fortunately, in the capable storytelling hands of Gold, that issue is moot. Superpower is an engaging read. Skelly’s life provides the narrative thread, but the book is really a warning: Our electric grid has failed to keep up with the changes in generation sources and consumer habits. Want more wind and solar power? Great, but how do you get electricity from wind turbines in western Oklahoma to populated areas that actually need the power? Skelly’s plan was to build what Gold describes as a giant extension cord—a massive direct-current power line—that would ship electricity generated by wind farms in the Oklahoma Panhandle to the eastern power grid through a connection in Memphis.
Right away, Gold makes it clear that Skelly is more hard-charging capitalist than crunchy-granola renewables enthusiast: “Skelly wanted to make a profit, because profits would attract new investors and money into renewable energy.”
Skelly formed a new company, Clean Line Energy Partners, raised millions from private investors, and developed a plan that would bring thousands of megawatts—enough energy to power thousands of homes—into the existing grids. The result would be cheaper, cleaner energy. He also hoped to prove that utilities’ fears that wind and solar power would destabilize the grid were unfounded. He took on ignorant politicians (I’m looking at you, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander), self-serving utilities, short-sighted bureaucrats, and NIMBY-minded landowners, who all have done their parts to ensure our national power grid remains a balkanized anachronism.
Gold doesn’t dwell on the minutiae of the grid or how it came to be, but he provides enough background so that the average reader can appreciate the magnitude of the challenge Skelly faced. No one had ever taken Skelly’s frontal-assault approach. Previous attempts to break utilities’ regional monopolies had relied on guerilla tactics. Gold recounts, for example, the first time anyone tried to connect a wind turbine to the power grid in the early 1970s. “Neither a national laboratory nor a forward-thinking utility ran the experiment,” Gold writes. “It was the work of a group of young men atop a tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side. The unwitting guinea pig was Con Edison.”
Gold also takes the reader through other interesting side stories, including the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority and even an armed uprising by Minnesota farmers against a new power line across their land. Interwoven with these mini history lessons is Skelly’s personal tale—his journey from listless Peace Corps volunteer, through various ventures in South America, to his ascent as the country’s pre-eminent renewables guru.
Despite some digressions, such as Skelly’s ill-fated flirtation with political office and his successful campaign to build bike trails in Houston, Superpower isn’t a detailed biography. Instead the book focuses on Skelly’s crusade as the visionary entrepreneur valiantly battling the forces of public doubt, inertia, and apathy to make power cleaner and cheaper.
If you work in energy or have heard of Skelly, you may, as I did, already know how Superpower ends. It might be an unsatisfying conclusion for some readers, but nonfiction doesn’t always fit into a neat story arc. If you want a satisfying ending, go watch Avengers: Endgame. If you want to understand one of the most important and least understood infrastructure issues facing our country, read Superpower.
Despite Clean Line’s fate, Skelly showed us what the future of power distribution can look like, and he demonstrated that renewable power—contrary to the carping from the fossil fuel crowd—can be economically viable in the private sector. That alone is a victory worth celebrating.
As Gold puts it, “the U.S. power grid remains like the pre-interstate highway system.” Skelly wanted to add super-fast electrical expressways. “If we connect regional markets, we can share inexpensive renewable power in a way that makes the power grid more reliable and cleaner,” Gold writes. “The sooner we begin to build a new grid to bind us together more effectively, the more of a fighting chance we’ll have to slow, and ultimately reverse, the carnage created by changing climate.”
Superpower will appeal most to energy geeks and infrastructure wonks, but it deserves attention from a broader audience. We all pay for electricity, but most of us don’t really understand what we’re buying. We say we want cleaner energy, and we assume the technical issues involved are simple. Superpower shows that they aren’t—and that the social and political hurdles are even greater.