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Design’s Role in the Future of the Power Grid

By Andrew Connor

January 22, 2021

ID faculty in conversation with Gretchen Bakke for the Lucas J. Daniel Series in Sustainable Systems

For its third annual Lucas J. Daniel Perspective in Sustainable Systems, the Institute of Design invited cultural anthropologist and writer Gretchen Bakke to speak on the complexity of America’s electricity grid and the role that systems design can play in its improvement.

Bakke is the author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy FutureIn the book, she details the history of America’s electrical grid and its increasing deterioration and instability. Not only is a lack of maintenance making the system less reliable, it’s limited in its ability to work with modern renewable sources of electricity, inhibiting our nation’s ability to transition to green energy sources.

Joining Bakke are ID faculty Weslynne Ashton and Carlos Teixeira, as well as Illinois Institute of Technology professor Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation. Together they discuss the social aspects affecting the grid, as well as the role designers might play in creating a more robust, sustainable, and equitable power infrastructure.

The talk also kicked off a spring Sustainable Solutions Workshop led by Teixeira on the future of the grid, which will go one step further in attempting to solve that tricky systems design problem. In it, ID students will explore ways in which designers can incorporate renewables and principles of the circular economy into an improved grid system, producing concepts and prototypes by the end of the semester.

One traditional model of thinking about electric grids is as a distributor of electricity for local consumption. It is a model of mass production and mass consumption that typified the twentieth century. But the advent of microgrids powered by local sources of renewable energy opens up the opportunity for rethinking the grid as a local marketplace for buying and selling clean energy. Design expertise is critical for imagining the socio-environmental and technical systems these microgrids could promote.
—Carlos Teixeira

The discussion took place on Wednesday, January 27 at noon, and the recording is available.