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Plugged In

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Get Used to It

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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 earthsky.org 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.

 

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

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