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Get Used to It

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Today’s suggestion? Get used to it.

Days of unspeakable heat? The heat taking the usual storm systems and turning them excessively violent? Lack of investment in infrastructure making recovery from those storms lengthy and piecemeal?

Check, check, and check. Remember the “Snowstorm of 88” narratives we all grew up listening to? The next generation of the-weather-is-bigger-than-we-are stories will be the ones people on the Mid-Atlantic are telling this week: “Where were you when the lights went out?”

As for me, I was hanging around at my house in Raleigh, NC. Guests gone, kids asleep, and sudden wind gusts as we felt the very bottom end of … something. Something turned out to be a derecho, a kind of thunderstorm on steroids. As the story says, “the above average temperatures being experienced across the area … act[ed] as fuel for this system.” Check out some of the videos on the site, especially the radar maps. That storm crossed the eastern states at 60 mph!

Wind blew down a tree somewhere in my neighborhood, and my block went dark. A midnight adventure down our darkened street with my wide-eyed seven-year-old showed no damage at the substation and lights on in adjacent blocks, so we knew our wait would be short. It was.

Not for everybody else. As of June 30 at 5 .m., more than a million and a half people were facing more 90-plus-degree weather without a cold drink or an electric fan, much less air conditioning and cable.

Above average temperatures? Bigger and worse storms? Get used to it.

As for the power grid, according to Venturebeat, “An outage of Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud in North Virginia [took] down Netflix, Pinterest, Instagram, and other services.” They were back up soon enough, but this is what it looks like now when the power goes out. The next day we went to a movie and saw a sign on the door that if the theater experienced one of the brownouts they were having, we were to keep calm; they’d get the movie back up as soon as they could. We were lucky – “Brave” ran uninterrupted. You should see it – it’s real good.

Anyhow, that grid, though, and recovery from storms and response to demand surges? Uh-oh. The American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2009 Report Card gave our electrical infrastructure a D+, and a 2011 followup report under the title “Failure to Act” laid out the economic consequences of standing around and watching stuff fail. If you think a few trillion dollars of lost GDP by 2040 and more than a half million lost jobs by 2020 you’ll be right on. Again — that’s not the trillions of dollars by which we’re behind in maintaining and building our infrastructure — that’s the money we’ll fail to make because we don’t have it. See? Failure to plan earns interest!

And have you noticed the resulting spending spree as investors and taxpayers lined up to make the unsexy investments in transmission lines, backup generation, peaker plants, distribution redundancy, and the kind of smart grid technology that limits outages to the smallest possible area and communicates trouble to the central office? Don’t feel bad – I haven’t noticed it either.

As for communication, remember – the way most electrical utilities get information on downed power lines is by using trained mammals to push buttons when the power goes off, and when they push the buttons a bell rings in the utilities’ offices. That is, they wait until you and I call them to tell them the power’s off. The Urban Land Institute’s “Infrastructure 2012″ doesn’t paint a much prettier picture.

So. Hurricane season is just starting, and the ocean is warming up. Thunderheads get bigger every day, and there’s only so many trucks with yellow rotating lights. Where were you when the lights went out? I was inside, banging on my VOIP phone, unable to tell the power company my power was out. Fortunately, the cell phone was charged and the tower had a generator.


Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. SimpleAtheist 4:37 pm 07/2/2012

    You know what is sad. We spend tons as consumers in electric bills and yet they put NOTHING, comparatively, back into the infrastructure for us. If you look at our Military forces while at war in other countries, they will bomb a place and have power back and going in less then a day. American corporations are pathetic.

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  2. 2. huler 4:45 pm 07/2/2012

    When I worked on my infrastructure book, “On the Grid,” all the experts agreed: whatever we need in infrastructure, the technological issues are not the problem. Smart grid? High-speed trains? Public transit? We can do that. But we need two things: money and political will. We always seem to have extra money on hand to go to Asia and blow some people up, and we’re always ready to do it, at least at first; but we never seem to have the money to build train tracks or transmission lines or the new sewer connector, and we sure never seem to want to. It’s on us, regrettably.

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  3. 3. Trafalgar 7:18 pm 07/2/2012

    We can’t afford to improve our infrastructure, we’re too busy throwing away all our money on having a bigger military than every other country combined, as well as a more advanced one, even if it means our civilization collapses (along with every other civilization on the planet, sooner or later).

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  4. 4. LarryW 11:40 pm 07/2/2012

    Money for infrastructure takes money from the pockets of investors. Investors cannot earn 8-10% on their money if you are spending it!

    And remember, the US economy is about consumption, not production. It’s about consuming on credit, with the investors buying your debt, and charging you 8-10% in fees and interest on it, or pay-day loans at 400% interest. And the debt is not being incurred to build, it’s being incurred for entertainment, insatiable appetites, maintaining obesity, drugs for obesity, bariatric surgery to make up for the lack of character, bric-a-bracs and other stuff that would not be missed if it never existed.

    It’s about gluttony; it’s about always wanting more.

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  5. 5. sjn 2:52 am 07/3/2012

    And when was the last time you saw Scientific American address how military spending not only consumes most of our income-tax funded federal budget , but the specifics of how 75-80% of the federal R&D funding for issues excepting medical (NIH) research goes to the military – leaving NASA, NIST, and everyone else (energy, environmental, etc. etc) to scramble for the meager remainders.

    20-30 years ago, SA used to talk about the issues of where we spent our R&D dollars, but I can’t remember the last time they had anything relevant to say about the military dominance of our technical endeavors.

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  6. 6. pokerplyer 1:26 pm 07/3/2012

    Investing in infrastructure is the best reasonable action that can be taken to prepare for future conditions. The comment by Trafalgar demonstrates a lack of understanding of the basic economics. The US has a spending problem driven predominately by the growth in entitlement spending. From military pensions to unlimited health care benefits, the cost growth of these programs is unaffordable. Investing in infrastructure actually provides a net benefit economically to society. It is the one area where deficit spending actually can make economic sense.

    Countries that invest in building proper infrastructure will do well regardless of how the weather changes in the future. Countries like India, Pakistan, etc. that do not build a proper infrastructure will suffer as bad weather inevitably happens.

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