Speed Reads


John Oliver explains the U.S. power grid and the challenge of upgrading it for America's electric future

"Electricity is such an integral part of modern life it is hard to believe that we used to have to sell people on the idea of electric appliances," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, showing a TV ad from 1959. "Specifically tonight we're going to talk about the power grid, the system of generators that produce electricity and the vast latticework of wires that get it to our homes. The grid is probably something that you probably don't think much about until it goes down — which, unfortunately, has been happening more and more in recent years."

"While things are bad now, they could get a lot worse in the future, because the U.S. has a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — which we absolutely must meet," Oliver said. "But one study estimates that's going to require a 40-60 percent in peak electricity consumption," with the shift to electric cars and heating, and "all that electricity is going to have to come from somewhere."

The U.S. power grids — 600,000 miles of transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines — have been called the "supreme engineering achievement of the 20th century," Oliver said. But most power lines are long past their 50-year life expectancies, and climate change has made them more vulnerable.

Upgrading the grid will require lots of little changes, but "our shift to renewable energy is going to require a fundamental shift in what our grid looks like," Oliver said. You can build coal plants near large coastal cities, but most wind farms will need to be in middle America, and it may be an "uphill battle" to convince "a Midwestern farmer 'We need to build something in your backyard so someone in California can power their electric car.'" Luckily, "the physical generation of renewable energy isn't really the problem here," he said. "The key issue is the transmission of it." And there are fixes for that, too, though not easy or cheap ones.

"For far too long, whenever we've experience blackouts, we've tended to think of it as the power grid failing," Oliver said,  "but the truth is, it's not failing us — we are failing it by asking it to do something it was not designed to do in conditions that it was not designed to handle." He ended his show with a bang, then a slight whimper.