A key technology could transform the power grid

Grid-forming inverters don’t sound exotic, and indeed they’re not. But these prosaic chunks of equipment are key to connecting wind and solar farms with existing power grids in ways that keep the grids stable, especially as renewable energy produces more and more of our electricity.

I learned this and a whole lot more about the infrastructure needed to make electricity-delivery systems climate friendly by reading contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze’s article “An electrical grid update.” It’s part of our ongoing “The Climate Fix” series investigating how people around the world are devising climate change solutions. Other recent coverage has included the most effective strategies to reduce carbon emissions (SN: 1/28/23, p. 22) and efforts by Kenya and other East African countries to make use of their abundant geothermal resources (SN: 7/1/23, p. 22).

Finding ways to get renewable energy safely into the grid isn’t the only upgrade needed. Agriculture also generates a lot of greenhouse gases. Consider cows. They produce a significant percentage of the world’s methane emissions, and animal scientists are experimenting with curbing the ruminants’ contributions. That includes adding red algae to the animal’s food. The algae disrupt gut microbes’ ability to produce methane, making cow burps less of a climate threat. But concerns that toxic by-products from the algae might get into milk and beef have led some scientists to switch tactics — instead adding red algae to cow poop, earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling reports. There, the algae reduce methane emissions from decomposing manure. It’s not enough to solve the cow-methane problem, but it’s a start.

The article on upgrading electrical grids led me to ruminate on the dominance of alternating current, or AC, in electrical systems. It wasn’t always a sure thing. Thomas Edison flipped the switch on the world’s first central power plant in New York City in 1882, a system with cables running under the streets to homes and businesses. But that direct current, DC, system lost voltage when wires extended more than a mile. Nikola Tesla, a young engineer from what is now Croatia who worked for Edison, thought that AC power, which can be transmitted with less energy loss, would solve that problem.

Edison was not amused: Tesla’s AC system threatened Edison’s royalties from DC patents. Edison launched a publicity campaign arguing that AC electricity was dangerous, an effort that included using AC electricity to stage public electrocutions of animals. Despite those gruesome tactics, Tesla’s system prevailed. He licensed patents to George Westinghouse, a key Edison rival, and joined the new Westinghouse Electric Company. The company proved the viability of AC systems for municipal lighting by winning the contract to design and build the electrical system for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Today, engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs are hard at work on innovations that will replace our 19th century systems with ones that will keep the lights on and protect the planet. I hope that 100 years from now, these innovators will be lauded as the Edisons, Teslas and Westinghouses of the climate solutions era.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.