Keeping the lights on: towards sustainable electricity

Keeping the lights on: towards sustainable electricity 

Walt Patterson 

London, UK: Earthscan | 2007 | 195pp | ?19.99 (HB) | ISBN 9781844074563 

Reviewed by Richard Van Noorden

Electricity policy has gone horribly wrong, says Walt Patterson, a former nuclear physicist with over 35 years of experience in the energy industry. As power grids fail and networks struggle under a sea of regulation, he clearly explains why, and how to fix them, in a discussion aimed at the lay reader.  

Patterson’s central, persuasive argument is that the electricity meter, introduced in the 1880s, is the root of all evil. The meter’s problem is that it makes markets treat electricity as if it is a commodity, like natural gas or water. But electricity is not a commodity that can be measured or stored; as Patterson explains, it is a process. Efficient electricity needs good infrastructure - generators, wires, lamps - to enable the process. But charging for electricity by the unit will never promote good infrastructure, for who would want to make infrastructure more efficient, when they would only lose profits as customers used fewer units of electricity?  

The centralised, wasteful grid of electricity generation that this market attitude has led to must switch to more reliable, decentralised systems, Patterson goes on to argue, where users pay for good infrastructure. How that change will happen while keeping the lights on is the main challenge. 

Patterson writes beautifully and will provoke a lot of thought about energy and how we use it. But the book has a serious flaw. It is not a book at all - rather, an adapted collection of essays and lectures delivered over seven years. With more severe editing, these essays could have been turned into a short, snappy read. As they stand, they mingle with each other uncomfortably, hammering home each other’s messages in disconnected ways. It is a pity that such a fascinating and expert guide to electricity should be spoiled by not being fully adapted to its medium and its professed audience.