Infrastructure Fragility

Last week the winter resort community of Brian Head [Utah] lost electric power for 19 hours during a bitter winter storm.  Because the outage was caused late in the day by a downed power line and insulators broken by subzero temperatures, blinding snow, and high winds in a mountain area not accessible except by foot or snowcat in the winter, it was more than twelve hours before power crews could even locate and then reach the site.  This loss of power caused an estimated $30 million worth of damage to more than 200 condominiums and resort homes from frozen and burst pipes.

There are, of course, a few questions as to why this happened.  How could so much damage occur in such a short time?  After all, I live some thirty miles away, as the crow flies, from Brian Head, and the temperatures here weren’t that much colder. In fact, we turn the heat down from 65 degrees to 50 at night, and the house didn’t even cool fifteen degrees that night.  But then, we have a well-insulated house, and the starting temperature was 65 degrees.  The majority of the dwellings damaged in Brian Head were rental units, many of which were unoccupied at the time, and the baseline heating level was probably around 50 degrees. Second, those units were not all that well insulated and depended on continuous power in the winter.

Even so, what happened in Brian Head illustrates just how dependent how most of us in the United States are on the continuous flow of power, water, and other infrastructure services.  We’re also often ill-equipped to deal with massive disruptions, as witness what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Our daughter and her husband in Houston, not even in the direct path of the Hurricane, were without power for nearly a month because the power crews could not get to their street because the number of downed trees overwhelmed their capabilities.

Yet neither the majority of Americans – or U.S. politicians – seem to recognize either our degree of dependence on our infrastructure or its deteriorating state.  The electric grid is outdated and held together with creative fixes… and hope.  Tens of thousands of bridges are deteriorating.  The water system serving New York City is over a century old and leaks millions of gallons a day.  The list goes on and on… and only when there’s an emergency – or a disaster – does it seem like either businesses or government even take notice.

They’re all like the rental property owners in Brian Head – build it and operate it as cheaply as possible, regardless of the possible damages and costs if something goes wrong – just another example of short-term thinking on the part of both the public and the private sector.

8 thoughts on “Infrastructure Fragility”

  1. Jim says:

    In the DC area, every significant storm over the last few years (and more than a few less significant ones!) has been accompanied by fairly wide outages, especially in areas served by PEPCO for electricity. This despite repeated promises that they’ll do better next time…

    On Wednesday, 1/26/2011, the National Capital area was hit by a fierce snowstorm that quite literally paralyzed the region. Traffic is ordinarily unpleasant. On that day, it took people 8 and 10 hours (or more!) to travel distances that generally, even at the worst, take an hour or two. Bluntly, the roads couldn’t support the number of people dumped on them when the federal government shut down early, and many businesses and local governments followed their lead.

    Bluntly, the infrastructure is barely adequate under good conditions. Compromise the conditions, and things go downhill fast and hard. Neither politicians nor the general public are willing to accept the costs of burying power lines, restricting distribution or even higher gas taxes to pay for more or better roads.

  2. Jamey says:

    This is also seen, I think, in the push for efficiency reducing redundancy. Many businesses no longer keep significant inventory on hand – instead, they do just-in-time ordering from their suppliers, and events that cause shipping delays can create major issues for them. Look at the businesses that died due to something as simple as the UPS strike several years ago. Buildings are built to survive some theoretical expected lifespan (usually related to tax depreciation), and then the minimum is done to extend that lifespan. Less materials are used, in the name of efficiency, but that also means that the margins are shaved much closer, with what is becoming more and more common tragic results. Corporations, being of limited liability *by law*, find it cheaper to pay the fines, and spin some PR, than to actually build in safety margins.

    We’re in serious trouble. I recently re-read F. Paul Wilson’s _An Enemy of the State_, and was reminded of just how scarily prophetic it seemed the first time around I read it.

  3. David Sims says:

    I anticipate those kind of problems. I burn wood for heat in the winter. All my water comes from rain and melting snow. I live on a hillside in the middle of a mostly deciduous forest, so wood is easy to get. I’ve a system of pipes, channels, barrels, lines, and taps in place to gather and store water. The Mormons sock away a year’s worth of food. I’m good for FOUR YEARS buddy! I’ve always known that the US infrastructure would one day fail, and so I long ago decided not to depend on it. I’m ready for anything short of the End of the World, and I hope to be prepared for that, too, before it gets here.

  4. I sometimes wonder if we’re going to have to put a solar panel or three on the roof of every home and every business in the country. Huge up-front investment, but if every home and business — especially those mammoth industrial parks and warehouse districts — had solar cells covering much or even most of the roof, with an attached battery array on the premises, we’d be better prepared for when the grid drops on us. Heck, how much power could get put back into the grid, reducing our reliance on coal power plants? We could also swap big tax breaks for businesses and private owners to elect to get the solar tech installed. A very nice financial incentive, regardless of a person’s political persuasion.

    1. Jamey says:

      The problem with that is the real problem we have with energy today. Supplying power is, truthfully, not a big problem. We have more than enough options already available that Mr. Fusion is just icing on the cake. The problem lies in storage and transport. Huge efficiency losses in long-distance power lines and no batteries that can store significant amounts of energy in a reasonable volume mean that all of the intermittent sources, such as solar and wind power, can’t be used to full effectiveness.

      We could easily coat most buildings in solar cells right now – expensive, but certainly doable. However, once the sun goes down, we’ve got nothing.

      1. David Sims says:

        The scale at which energy can be generated with other sources of power, excepting fusion, which we don’t really have yet, is only a small fraction of the energy we now get from fossil fuels.

        Next to fossil fuels, wind supplies a relatively tiny amount of power. Likewise for solar power. Likewise for hydroelectric power. Likewise for fission reactors. Fission could have been developed to the point where it might replace fossil fuels in the generation of electricity, but it wasn’t. And it takes fossil fuels (and about ten years) to build more fission reactors. It’s probably too late to develop fission as a means to avoid the consequences of fossil fuel depletion.

        While it’s true that the sunshine falling on Earth contains more power than mankind presently uses, the fact is that most of that sunshine isn’t collected by humans. Plants get a lot of it. Even more falls on the oceans and evaporates water to make clouds, which leads to rain. In order to replace fossil fuels as a source of electric power, we’d need a solar panel the size of the state of Georgia. Solar panels TAKE ENERGY to manufacture. Lots of it, too. That is why they are so expensive. There’s some question about whether a solar panel will convert more electricity from sunlight than was used up in its fabrication.

        We’ll have to make due with less, of course. But scrimp as we will, the energy shortage will be so severe that there won’t be food enough for everyone in the world. When gasoline powered tractors and combines won’t run for lack of fuel, we’ll be using hand-tools and animal drawn plows, with no artificial fertilizer. Our crop yields per acre will fall to less than a quarter of what they are now. Obviously, someone, somewhere, will starve to death, and the good news is that, once he is dead, his suffering will have ended.

  5. Bob Howard says:

    Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times was particularly apropos for Mr. Modesitt’s comments. The Republicans’ budget proposals should be called, in Krugman’s words, “eat the future.” By pandering to the base with blatant distortions of fiscal realities. They are now held hostage to the Tea Party activists and their irrational promise to deliver $100 million in cuts this year. Their response is to sacrifice the future.

    It’s not only a failure to invest to restore our crumbling infrastructure, it’s an apparent unwillingness to fund the programs that guarantee the future prosperity of our society. By slashing future-directed programs they can deliver the immediate cuts their base demands and defer the pain. Why cut IRS enforcement (which more than pays for itself) and encourage tax evasion? Why cut protections on clean air and water or programs that ensure adequate nutrition for infants?

    As Brad said in the last post, regardless of your political persuasion, how is it sensible to cut incentives for alternative energy development when we are all in favor of cutting reliance on foreign oil? Why do US oil companies, among our most profitable, still require federal subsidies and tax breaks?

    Infrastructure is not sexy and splashy. It does not lend itself to political photo ops. Who wants to be the Congressman noted for improving his district’s sewers? But that’s the Congressman who’d get my vote.

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