Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

A historian's new book sheds light on blackouts

2 min read
Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?


When the Lights Went Out
By David E. Nye; MIT Press, March 2010; 304 pp.; $27.95; ISBN ISBN 978-0-262-01374-1

Inventing cars means inventing car wrecks; inventing planes means inventing plane crashes; inventing the electric grid means inventing blackouts. This is the stark logic behind a penetrating new look at power outages. Author David Nye, an expat professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark, in Odense, has written about electricity before, notably in his award-winning 1992 book Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880–1940. In When the Lights Went Out, though, he examines those moments when a city or region is suddenly de-electrified.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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