The Power Grid: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

John Oliver discusses the current state of the nation’s power grid, why it needs fixing, and, of course, how fun balloons are.
The Power Grid: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 8 Episode 29
Aired on November 7, 2021

Main segment: The U.S. power grid
Other segments: 

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[Cheers and applause]

John: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight!” I’m John Oliver, thank you so much for joining us, just time for a quick recap of the week, which has been busy. The house finally passed the big infrastructure bill. Abba released its first album in 40 years, so you know your parents are fucking tonight. And the democrats had a rough time in Tuesday’s elections. They lost the governor’s race in Virginia and nearly lost the governorship of New Jersey. But perhaps the clearest sign of just how much voters have turned on them was this:

The truck driver with no prior political experience has defeated one of the most powerful Democrats in New Jersey.

He is Republican Edward Durr and he has won the District 3 Senate seat over incumbent Steve Sweeney, the state Senate President.

John: Okay, hold on. I know there is a lot to process there: from a surprise upset by a man with no political experience, to someone being called one of the most powerful Democrats in New Jersey while looking like daddy dinosaur from “Dinosaurs.” But what I didn’t need to be told is that the name of his vanquisher — this man — is “Ed Durr.” Because when you look like this, the “Ed Durr” is very much assumed. I see this image and I immediately know three things: he’s a white middle-aged guy. His style icon is Larry King. And his name is, unavoidably, Ed Durr. This was a huge upset, and if you’re thinking, “Well, maybe Ed Durr simply captivated people with his unique and powerful vision for New Jersey,” good luck landing that argument.

Ed, what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get to the Capitol in Trenton?

Uh, I really don’t know. That’s the key factor. I don’t know what I don’t know, so I will learn what I need to know.

John: Oh, come on, Ed Durr. You could have answered anything there. You could have said “I’m gonna lick every door handle” or “get to the bottom of this Epstein thing” or you could have just said, “Durr.” Any of which would have been better than “I don’t know.” Also, what’s he wearing there? Black on red? He looks like he’s auditioning to be the newest member of My Chemical Romance. The only time that color combination is remotely acceptable is if you’re a middle school boy who wants his classmates to know that he is gonna buy a gun as soon as he’s old enough. And it is not just Durr’s lack of experience that’s troubling here. He’s compared Covid mandates to the Holocaust and tweeted that the prophet Muhammad was a pedophile and Islam is a false religion. All of which suddenly makes me a lot less concerned about the things Ed Durr doesn’t know, and way more concerned about the things he thinks he does.

Now, meanwhile, President Biden traveled to the COP26 Climate Summit this week, where world leaders met to tackle the most urgent issue of our time, and Biden didn’t get off to a great start.

President Biden is at the U.N. Climate Summit in Scotland today, and during today’s opening session, you guessed it, he appeared to fall asleep there.

This conference is one of the most important meetings in history.

John: Yeah. That’s not ideal, is it? “This conference is one of the most important meetings in history” is one of the worst things someone can say as you nod off. It’s right up there with “you may now kiss the bride” or “in one mile, exit highway” or “welcome to ‘Last Week Tonight,’ I’m John Oliver.” The conference was full of reminders, big and small, of just how serious this situation is, from the massive protests outside to some of the displays within. For example, the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, which may soon be flooded out of existence thanks to climate change, installed this exhibit, depicting polar bears in life vests and a penguin in a noose. Which is a striking image, and either suggests Tuvalu’s plight or some kind of a tragic situation where a group of polar bears committed a crime so heinous, they had to kill the only witness — an innocent penguin — and make it look like a suicide before popping on their getaway life vests and escaping to start new, happier lives. It’s one of those two things. But the main attraction was clearly the world leaders, many of whom made some big promises, like cutting back on coal and methane emissions and committing to ending deforestation. And cumulatively, those promises could have some effect.

The international energy agency says if all the pledges from COP26 are fulfilled as promised and on schedule, global warming can be limited to 1.8 degrees.

John: Right, 1.8 degrees. Which sounds okay, until you remember the scientific consensus is that the rise needs to be limited to 1.5 degrees, and beyond that threshold, there’s a far greater likelihood of devastating consequences. And it actually gets worse, because that already insufficient target is predicated on every single country living up to its pledges, which seems very unlikely, because their track record isn’t great here. At the COP15 conference 12 years ago, rich nations promised to channel $100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change. But they are nowhere close to that. And look, there are things it’s okay to take a decade on and not deliver — the “Avatar” sequels, for instance. Take your time on those, James Cameron. No one gives a shit. I will give anyone in this audience a thousand dollars if they remember either of these characters’ names. Exactly. Aid to fight climate change, though, is something people actually need. The truth is, while world leaders may be loudly patting themselves on the back for pledging a better future this week, the last decade of broken promises should serve as a warning that we have to keep pushing them. Because this next decade is it. Everything is on the line — your life, mine, those sadistic polar bears’. All of it. And we all need to take an active role in waking world leaders up — figuratively and sadly, in one case, literally. And now, this.

* * *

Announcer: And now, people on tv saying things wrong.

Dr. Rodriguez is a board-certified internist and a viralist. Am I saying that right? A virologist.

Now listen to Taylor Swift’s new album. “Forklore.” Can you help me out? “Forklore.” Am I saying that correctly?

You’re looking right here at Cape Can-a-var-al. Am I saying?

You said that right.

The director of workers for opportunity at the Mack-a-knack Center. Am I saying that right?

Mackinac, but thank you for having me.

This morning, a work of art by Banksky — am I saying this right, Banksky?

Have you not heard of Banksy?

He painted that one thing on the walls and stuff. Okay, Banke —

Banksy. [Laughter]

At an auction in London. Banksky. Banke?

* * *

Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns electricity. It’s like Oscar Isaac, in that without its involvement, nothing in my house gets turned on. Electricity is such an integral part of modern life, it’s hard to believe that we used to have to sell people on the idea of electric appliances with ads like this.

When you step inside the total electric home you step into an entirely new concept in living organized around electric centers such as this entertainment center. The pride and joy of the man of the house is the weather control center, a center that puts you in charge of the electric heating and air conditioning and the electronic air filtering of the entire house.

John: “Yes, the pride and joy of the man of the house is, of course, the temperature control system. Just invite all your thermo-bros over on a Sunday, crack open a few brews, and watch the temperature for hours. Sorry, ladies — you wouldn’t understand. It’s a guy thing.” Specifically, 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 something you probably don’t think about until it goes down — which unfortunately, has been happening more and more in recent years.

Millions of Texans woke up to cold homes when the power grid failed.

This video shows lights going out as parts of the power grid failed.

And that power grid failed yesterday when hurricane Ida ravaged parts of Louisiana.

The lights went out across downtown Detroit, cutting power to 1,400 buildings. Watch as the lights go out during a murder trial, these lawyers left in the dark.

John: Holy shit! When the lights go out during a murder trial, one of two things is happening: you’ve either got a power grid deeply in need of repair or the murder victim has come back as a ghost and is seeking revenge. Either way, your priorities have shifted and it’s time to focus on a much bigger problem. If it feels like there’ve been more outages than usual recently, that’s because there have. By one estimate, from 2015 to 2020 the number of annual blackouts in the U.S. doubled. That is not good for numerous reasons — the most obvious being, sitting around without power for any period of time absolutely sucks. What are you supposed to do without tv and the internet? Go outside? That’s where snakes live, you idiot! So what else are you supposed to do — read a book? That’s where snakes sleep, you idiot! Why do you think we invented kindles? But it’s not just inconvenience. Losing electricity wreaks havoc on everything from sewage treatment plants to water purification systems, and can be life-threatening to people who rely on medical equipment like ventilators and powered wheelchairs.

It’s traumatizing, it’s terrifying.

For Terhorst, an outage is more than just an expensive inconvenience.

This isn’t like, “I’m going to lose a casserole in my fridge,” you know? This is, “I may not be alive tomorrow.”

John: Right, exactly. This is about much more than just lost casseroles especially because, let’s be honest here, all casseroles are shit. They don’t rely on specific ingredients so much as on “whatever’s in someone’s house.” Casseroles are a sad smorgasbord of other leftovers desperately cobbled together to make a pathetic almost meal with names like “tuna surprise” and “chicken I’m sorry.” But to have a casserole leftover? That’s abandoned food that didn’t make the cut two rounds in a row. I’m sorry, but if that is your only option, there are worse fates than being dead. And while things are right 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 must absolutely must meet — but one study estimates that’s going to require a 40% to 60% increase in peak electricity consumption. Which, when you think about it, does make sense — if we’re switching to electric cars, cooking, and heating, all that electricity is going to have to come from somewhere. And the truth is, if everyone suddenly had an electric car tomorrow, that might be great for the planet but it could push our grid to the absolute limit. So tonight, let’s talk about the power grid, the current state that it’s in, and what we can do to fix it. And let’s start with the fact that while I’m saying “grid,” singular, our system is actually made up of three grids. There’s the eastern interconnection, the western interconnection, and the Texas interconnection. It’s basically like major league baseball, in that there are two dominant groups and then assholes in Texas who’d rather make up their own rules. And it all started in 1882, right here in New York, when Thomas Edison unveiled the country’s first central power station on Pearl Street. Interestingly, it was then-Edison’s-sometime rival, Nikola Tesla, who helped develop the technology enabling electricity to travel for long distances. Something all the more remarkable, given Tesla’s — let’s say eccentricities.

Tesla suffered from bizarre compulsions like his consuming need to rescue injured pigeons and nurse them back to health.

He has an infirmary for them right outside his bedroom window where he’s trying to heal, you know, some might have broken wings, broken legs. And in fact, at one point, he actually referred to one bird as his wife. And he said, you know, when she died, the inventive spirit left him.

John: Oh, did it, now? Look, this isn’t the point of this story, or anything, really, but if Tesla were alive today I genuinely wonder which would upset him more, the fact that his name’s been co-opted by history’s first edgelord billionaire or the fact that modern pigeons have gotten so unfuckable. Listen, I said no. Respectfully, thank you for the attention, but I am not interested, please leave me and my friends alone. And when it was built, our power grid wasn’t just a technical marvel — it was a civic one. Until the 1930s, electricity was a luxury mainly for dense urban areas of the country. But after FDR created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935, that began to change.

The REA was set up by the President and the Congress in 1935 to help farmers to get the power and the light at a price they can afford. Here is the first thing women ask for after light itself. If you have ever ironed for an hour, you’ll know why. An electric iron may not look important to a man, but it lightens one whole day’s burden for a woman.

John: “Yes, don’t worry, ladies, with hubby naturally busy staring at the thermostat, you’ll have plenty to do to occupy your time, like ironing his clothes, or teaching a different woman to iron his clothes and, if there’s still time, pressing the iron to your neck just for a moment, simply to feel something. You thought getting lights would make things better, but it only made things clearer, didn’t it? Didn’t it?” In the end, we wound up with 600,000 miles of transmission lines and around 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines, like the ones that you might see outside of your house, all of which form our modern electrical grid. It’s been called “the supreme engineering achievement of the 20th century.” Which is not to say that it is completely invulnerable. Of course not. When you string wires in the air, they’re subject to interference from all sorts of things. A website that tracked disruptions found that there’ve been over 600 outages caused by squirrels, over 200 by birds, 53 by raccoons, and a number of others caused by everything from snakes to slugs. And let me just quickly say here, kudos, slugs. Out of everything on that list, you’re the ones I underestimated. The nicest thing I can say about you is that on your best day you look like sassy poop — but you really showed us something by disrupting our power. So once more, slugs — kudos. But it’s not just animals that can wreak havoc. There’ve also been multiple balloon-based disruptions, and if you’re wondering how on earth a balloon could cause a power outage, the answer is like this:

Oh, shit! Oh!

[Laughs] [explosion]

John: Excellent. Not one single note. I hope no one standing there was hurt, but honestly, even if someone was, it wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me. But disruptions have always been an issue for the power grid. What makes it especially vulnerable now is a combination of two key factors. The first is old age. Most power lines were constructed in the ’50s and ’60s with a 50-year life expectancy, which they’re clearly now well past. And the second is climate change, meaning there’s now more danger posed by extreme weather, like hurricanes, tornadoes, and abnormally hot or cold temperatures. And that combo of old equipment and new climate threats has been disastrous. The massive campfire in California a few years ago happened because there was a drought in the area, making it essentially a tinderbox. And in intense winds, some Pacific Gas & Electric equipment failed, and for a pretty infuriating reason.

This is the hook that killed 84 people.

That groove took about 98 years to wear in. It’s not a defect. These hooks are what are holding the electrical lines off the ground, and PG&E’s decision was simply just to let these things hang until they broke.

When this old hook did break, the power line made contact with the metal tower, showering the ground in sparks. That’s how PG&E started the campfire.

John: Yeah. And let that be a lesson to you. You can’t just keep something to keep working forever. PG&E basically took the same approach to their equipment as Democrats did with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And in both cases, it didn’t end well. So basically, we’ve got a power grid built in the 20th century that’s not equipped to deal with the needs and stresses of the 21st. And if you’re thinking, “Well, okay, let’s upgrade it then.” You are absolutely right. But that’s also a massive undertaking. Because there are a lot of fixes, both small and huge, that the power grid badly needs. The small ones, we don’t have time to get into tonight — like investing in microgrids and weatherproofing, as well as better storage capabilities, so excess power we generate doesn’t go to waste. But we’re going to focus on the huge one here. Because our shift to renewable energy is going to require a fundamental shift in what our grid looks like. One of the few benefits of fossil-fuel plants is that you can put them anywhere — that’s why most are located near densely populated areas, close to the people they serve. But you can’t just replace every coal plant with a wind farm, because that is not necessarily where the wind is strongest, and that fact alone changes everything.

This is a model created by Princeton, mapping out possible places in the continental U.S. where wind and solar projects could, in theory, be built. Aside from some offshore wind farms, it’s mostly in the middle of the U.S. another study found that these states have most of the wind and solar potential, yet the people living there would only make up 30% of the electricity demand. In a decarbonized future, we’re going to need to get electricity from here to here.

John: Right, and you probably don’t even need me to tell you why this is going to be an uphill battle, because as soon as you saw that graphic and realized updating the grid was going to require a Princeton researcher telling a midwestern farmer, “we need to build something in your backyard so someone in California can power their electric car,” you already called the next eight election cycles for republicans. But there’s actually some good news here, because we’ve already made considerable progress in building out renewable energy power sources. Last year, for the first time ever, renewables like solar, wind, and hydropower accounted for the largest portion of new generating capacity. And that is good not just for consumers, but in many cases, for the communities where those facilities are built. In 2019, wind energy projects alone provided $706 million in land lease payments to rural landowners. So entire towns and areas can benefit from the money and the jobs renewables can bring — as this mayor in Wyoming can attest.

My personal belief is it provides money, it provides jobs, taxes. And then I look at the towns that they’re by and just think of what people have that they wouldn’t have had. A lot of infrastructure, police cars, those kind of things. When I look at a wind farm, all I think about is cha-ching.

John: And that’s great. Though, to be clear, when you look at a wind farm, you can’t think “cha-ching,” because that’s the cash register noise. I know you’re trying to make a different point, but this is important too. Wind farms go “fwhooom. Fwhooom. Fwhooom.” That’s how wind farms go. A cash register goes “cha-ching,” a solar farm goes “tssssss,” a cat on the day everyone forgot its birthday goes “me-ow,” a horny cartoon wolf goes “awhooga,” and, again, wind farms go, “fwhooom. Fwhooom. Fwhooom.” Just so we’re clear about how things go. So the physical generation of renewable energy isn’t really the problem. The key issue is the transmission of it — basically, how do you get that energy from where it’s made, like a wind farm in Wyoming, to where it’s needed, which could be a thousand miles away? And that brings us to transmission lines, because they are at the absolute heart of our grid, and we are going to need a lot more of them. Partly because, due to the limitations of our aging transmission infrastructure, in some places, we actually have more electricity than we have the capability to transport. For instance, in Vermont, they had to put a moratorium on new solar and wind projects because the transmission lines couldn’t carry any more electricity. So building out newer, higher capacity lines is crucially important. But so far, we haven’t done nearly enough. And that is for a couple of reasons. And the first big one is location. Stringing power lines out across the country is a logistical nightmare. Unlike interstate gas lines, which only require approval from the federal energy regulatory commission, with power lines, you must secure the buy-in from multiple state and local agencies in every state you pass through, alongside all the individual landowners whose property you need to use. And look, there are legitimate reasons for people to not want power lines in their backyard — for instance, if it disrupts their farming operation or goes through environmentally protected areas or cultural or sacred sites for native Americans. Other objections are simply aesthetic. The fact is, high-voltage lines capable of carrying more electricity require bigger towers than their predecessors, and some people just don’t want to see them. It’s such an issue that some countries have actually made efforts to beautify their towers. In Hungary, they decided to build ones that look like jesters. In Iceland, they’ve proposed these designs for a project called “land of giants.” And in Argentina, there is “Coloso,” the giant transmission line robot. At night, Coloso lights up and can even smile and wink. And, look, I get the smile part — you want Coloso to come off as friendly so children aren’t terrified of the giant electrified robot with glowing monster eyes — but why does it need to wink? What is it trying to communicate? Is it coming on to us? Because I feel the same way about Coloso as I do about that pigeon — never in a million fucking years. No, thank you. Please stop looking at me like that. It’s making me uncomfortable. It’s my friend’s birthday. We’re just trying to give her a nice evening. Although I will keep the long island iced tea. Thank you and good night. And the thing is, local opposition can be very effective in killing transmission line projects. A few years back, a company proposed plans to build 16 miles of new lines through Pennsylvania. But local landowners formed a grassroots group to push back, even releasing videos like this one to detail their objections:

I understand everybody needs electric and everybody has to have electric. I wouldn’t want to be without electric. But from what I understand, you know, this is only going to help people in Western PA, Maryland, and Virginia. And what’s it do? You know, I mean, I chose to live here, and they chose to live there. So don’t make your problem my problem. That’s — that’s how I feel.

John: Okay, I mean, that is a little maddening. The mirrored sunglasses don’t help, but it’s more than that. Because I do get “I don’t want this on my land,” but to make your argument “I don’t want this here if it’ll help help someone over there” makes you sound like a dick. Also, if we don’t upgrade the grid, absolutely everyone is going to have problems, including you. It’s like saying, “don’t make your problem my problem” when your neighbor’s yard is full of bears. Sure, but when it gets over that fence, guess what? It’s your fucking problem now too. And when you consider all the hurdles transmission projects have to clear, it’s no wonder it can take up to a decade to get new ones approved, if they’re approved at all. And this can make it harder to bring renewable energy onto the grid in the first place. Fewer than a quarter of proposed energy projects, like solar and wind, actually ever make it to commercial operation because of transmission hurdles. And that is really not good. Now, the second big obstacle to overcome here is cost. Because the truth is, this won’t be cheap. One study projects decarbonizing our power grid could cost $2.5 trillion over the next decade. To put it mildly, not everyone is on board with spending that money. When congress was considering the clean future act — a bill that would, among other things, provide for expanding our transmission system — representative Bill Johnson absolutely refused to entertain the notion that it could possibly be worth it and would not back down.

Whether the American people are stuck picking up this tab via higher taxes or rate increases on their utility bills, can you honestly say that they’ll be receiving a return on their investment?

As you look at the cost-benefit for the health and safety of communities —

No, what’s the return on investment? What is the return on investment? They’re making a monetary investment with their taxes or their rate increases. What is the return on their investment?

So the return on the investment is access to clean energy. It’s access to —

No, that’s not a return on investment. A return on investment is a monetary thing. That’s why you make an investment.

John: Okay, a few things: one, shut up. Two, if you had let her talk for more than two fucking seconds, she might have told you many studies have found that it is cost-effective. For instance, a federal lab looked into expanding transmission lines across the country and found that such a project could return up to $2.50 in benefits for every dollar of cost. Which is, as an asshole might put it, a return. A return on a fucking investment. But set that aside. Set aside also that blackouts can cost us a lot of money, as the people of Texas will tell you, after what happened to them earlier this year. There are also many benefits here that aren’t purely monetary. A cleaner grid helps combat climate change, meaning that maybe your grandkids won’t die in weekly lava hurricanes. Which does seem pretty worthwhile. Framing this purely a matter of net profit so weird. It’s like saying, “what’s the return on investment in funding the fire department? How much money do we make off that?” Well, technically none, but if your house is on fire, someone will come with a hose put it out. Plus we get those sexy firefighter calendars full of oiled-up fire hunks. So we get to be safer and hornier. I’d call it a win-win. And look, I admit, this is going to require a lot of compromise and flexibility from all of us. But there are ways to overcome the hurdles I’ve described. When it comes to transmission line location, we can ease people’s concerns. Not necessarily by going full creepy Coloso here. We don’t have to be winked at. But we can make sure people are compensated fairly for the use of their property, or place lines, to the extent possible, on already “disturbed lands” like along railroads and highways. And when it comes to cost, we’re finally making some progress. The infrastructure bill that passed the house this week devotes over $65 billion to improve the power grid with a portion going directly to transmission upgrades and expansion. It is a good start while also being not nearly enough. But the key thing going forward here might be to start thinking about this differently than we currently are. ‘Cause for too long, whenever we’ve experienced blackouts, we’ve tended to think of it as “the power grid failing.” But truth is, it’s not failing us, we’re failing it by asking it to do something it wasn’t designed to do in conditions it wasn’t designed to handle. So we need to act boldly and quickly, as if both our lives and our shitty casseroles depend on it. And if we do this, if we manage to properly upgrade our power grid, it will genuinely be one of the biggest accomplishments of the 21st century and one definitely worth celebrating. Perhaps, I don’t know, with some balloons! You know? Balloons are always fun, aren’t they? Oh, shit. [Explosion] oh, shit. Oh, no. Hold on. I’m okay.

That’s our show. Thanks so much for watching, we will see you next week. Good — [balloon pops] fuck! Good night. Thank you, that’s it. I’m going to go this way. Over here? We’ll be back next week.


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