The Switch

Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

BURN’s hour-long special “The Switch” is about our aging electric power grid: a half century-old patchwork system – stretched to capacity – that transmits and distributes electricity from plants to consumers. Host Alex Chadwick and BURN’s producers and reporters explore how the grid works, and what happens when it breaks under storms and floods. We talk to the people who help fix it, a family that’s left the whole thing behind, and the innovators working to make our national grid safer and smarter.

Stories in The Switch:

The Hoboken power emergency – Part 1

Photo credit to Morgan McNeish

When Hurricane Sandy landed last fall, Hoboken, New Jersey got slammed. The Hudson River flooded, knocking out all of the city’s power. Hobken went completely dark. Host Alex Chadwick heads to Hoboken – the former marshland just across the water from New York’s West Village – and talks to people who were there the night Sandy took out this small city.

(1:46 - 4:44)

How the grid works: an explainer

National Grid truck cropped for Kurz's grid explainer

Do you REALLY understand how an electrical grid works? Producer Josh Kurz explain today’s power grid, some of its biggest problems, and how smart grid technology could help.

(4:57 - 9:23)

Tim Gallant, electrical lineman

The Switch - photo for homepage

They are the electric grid army. When the lights go out, legions of power linemen are deployed across our cities and towns. They climb poles and rework wires when the lights go out, just to bring back the light. Science reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro has this portrait of lineman Tim Gallant, who’s been working for the National Grid energy company for more than 3 decades.

(9:23 - 15:24)

Electrifying rural America


Running a family-owned farm is one of this country’s more difficult livelihoods. Before electrical power, it was even harder. In the early 1930s, only 11% of the country’s farms had power. Fifty years later, nearly all of them had electricity.

Here are oral histories of people who experienced the life-changing transformation, much of it coming courtesy of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).

(16:24 - 21:54)

Between bizarre & unimaginable: Life off the grid

Paonia featured image

Michelle Nijhuis has lived off the electrical grid with her husband Jack Perrin in the tiny town of Paonia, Colorado for fifteen years in a house built with straw bales, plastered with mud and powered by the sun. It’s a way of life, Nijhuis says, many consider “somewhere between bizarre and unimaginable.”

(22:22 - 30:00)

Army’s micro-grid for combat zones


Host Alex Chadwick reports on an unlikely energy innovator – the US Army – which is preparing to deploy a radically redesigned combat outpost featuring a smart micro-grid. COPs are basic military camp for about 100 soldiers. They need to function like small communities – with water, sanitation, food, and power.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, supplying these units with fuel and water became the single greatest point of vulnerability. The new COPs cut fuel demand by at least half, which means fewer caravans, and fewer casualties.

(30:24 - 36:58)

Paul Stockton: Keeping the grid safe


Paul Stockton was the government’s point man for protecting the nation’s electrical grid from terrorist attacks. He served for four years as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs. Stockton was the responsible for “defense critical infrastructure protection.”

He talks with host Alex Chadwick about the threat of terrorism against the grid. They also discuss the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how best to protect the grid during the next super storm.

(36:58 - 40:09)

Duke Energy leader Jim Rogers on smart grids & brownouts

Jim Rogers featured image

Jim Rogers leads the largest electric power company in the country, Duke Energy. They serve about about 22 million people in the Southeast and Midwest. The award-winning CEO talks with host Alex Chadwick about the challenged of powering the nation, what makes the grid great, and the future of efficiency & smart grid innovation.

(41:10 - 49:10)

The Hoboken power emergency – Part 2

Hoboken Part 2 featured image

It’s been almost 9 months since Hurricane Sandy blew out all of Hoboken, New Jersey’s power. It took a week and a half to pump the water out of the city, and repairs to public and private property, and to the grid system, are going to be very expensive.

Mayor Dawn Zimmer spoke with BURN host Alex Chadwick about her city’s plans to get ready when – not if – the next storm comes to Hoboken.

(49:10 - 52:30)