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About that Infrastructure in the Stimulus

Sarah's picture

We've known for years that the US electrical grid is shaky (east coast blackouts in 2003 and earlier (1969?), rolling brownouts narrowly avoided or actually undertaken in Texas and across the Southwest, and the semi-annual California Power Crisis, with or without Enron. We also know that long-distance transmission wastes power in the form of heat energy (thus the term "hot wire"). We know, too, that overhead transmission lines are dangerous to construction workers and farmers as well as vulnerable to weather-related outage.

What if we had jobs that could not be outsourced? What if we didn't just think outside the box, but completely outside the system? What if we decided to make the entire nation independent of the grid?

What if we decided to switch from long-distance transmission to local plants?

What if we decided to switch from overhead lines to buried utilities along extant rights-of-way (the barrow ditches, here in Texas; elsewhere, I'm not sure what you call that extra 30 feet or so either side of the road-shoulder that belongs to the state or city or whoever owns your stretches of highway/Interstate), a la the original optical-cable installation that made Sprint's landlines so much cooler, back in the 1980s, than AT&T?

Yeah, in urban zones it'd be a pain -- unless you could run the lines inside / alongside existing utilities. Many of the older cities have tunnel systems for sewage already, don't they? How hard would it be to weatherproof your electrical transmission system?
(Side benefit: fewer obstructions for people to whack with out-of-control cars on ice.)

What about creating waterproof conduit -- not necessarily plastic, which nowadays is mostly an import based of evil petroleum, but using, say, locally-obtainable metals processed into piping or locally-obtainable clays processed into ceramic pipe?

What if we decided to invoke anti-trust and national security and use those rules to create (oh, my gawd! they'll be union! danger! danger! danger!) jobs designing, building, maintaining, that infrastructure?

What if we got serious about using alternative and efficient power plants that are NOT subject to market manipulations, NOT subject to bank takeover, NOT subject to Geithner-and-Bernanke's spreadsheets?

At the very least maybe we'd come closer to being able to save some lives -- and if they were "little people," well, what's wrong with that? [Yeah, I'm still on about the death, from hypothermia, in his home, of a 93-year-old WWII veteran after Bay City power company people put a limiter on his electric line).

At the very best, maybe we'd be able to crack the stranglehold "the right people" have on our nation's economy today.

NB: Some of the links I've posted above refer to a single source of information, and yeah, I've included Wikipedia in my references. Laugh all you want. Others take you to a search string, because while there're tons of arguments out there, pro and con, for various sources of energy and various sites for new plants as well as different fuels to produce the electricity --- what there is one simple consensus on is this: without electric power we'd be a nation brought to its knees in a matter of hours, and we're skating on the rim of that danger everyday in the US.

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herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

Hi Sarah,

I found an awful lot off the mark and some flat wrong in this post. One thing first, you really have to remove that "Texas brownout" link, that is to a "global climate change is a myth" site. Second (and most importantly0, without mandating efficiency in consumer and industrial products and applications, and establishing strong incentives for conservation and changing the demographic away from the "suburban lifestyle economy", nearly everything you discuss here is like putting a bandaid on a sucking chest wound.

First, I don't know (but I know where to look) to see where the "Smart Grid" part of the infrastructure is at, but it is a necessary thing. It will allow population centers to hook into disperse sources of wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, wave, and even (yeah, I know), nuclear energy.

I already did one post in what I hope will be a series, a series of snapshots of progress on this front. I think the links in that first post are useful to look at.

Regarding overhead lines versus buried lines, there are disadvantages and advantages to both types*, something to keep in mind is that power outages due to underground line failure happens also, and when it does, it is extremely difficult to find and repair. Also, for longdistance transmission lines, the lines have to travel even greater distances than overheads, since they usually need to stick to established road or railroad right-of-ways. Line loss is primarily a function of line length.

I have no problem with local generation, it is a necessary component of the future, the main problem is storage and redundancy. And yeah, all this is what we should be spending the stimulus money on, rebuilding our infrastructure, rebuilding our commercial and commuter rail network, increasing LRT, weening the country off the suburbs.

*Regarding Wikipedia, I don't have a problem with it if the information is good, some of the articles there (technical ones especially, where the crazies don't come out) are actually really well-written and documented. Caveat emptor.

Salmo's picture
Submitted by Salmo on

When I look at the energy cycling in the natural world where I live, the 340 cfs flowing right now in the river running by my house seems to be the most powerful and most reliable sustainable energy source. There is a lot of talk about reinventing our senergy system to get off fossil fuels, but very little about the most traditional energy New England residents used. It should be possible to harness this power with a small run of the river turbine. I am sure that I am not unique; there must be a market for one. However, I can't find a commercial source. There seem to be installations in Scotland reported in On Earth (no response to inquiries), and a successful demonstration of research scale open flow bi-directional tidal turbines in Korea, but nothing here. I wonder why.

Sarah's picture
Submitted by Sarah on

makes my point, albeit in a bass-ackwards way: even people who don't have the brains God gives air ferns can tell that the grid is inadequate, overburdened, and not up to the load.

I live in West Texas. It's been several years ago now but Southwestern Public Service has a big generation plant near Muleshoe, in Bailey County. One spring day one of their employees was tasked with washing a truck outdoors, and in the performance of that task he caused a power outage affecting four states -- Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado -- when wind-whipped water from the truck he was washing shorted out some equipment. During the 2003 blackout, a Lubbock Avalanche-Journal report mentioned that incident:

The massive blackout reminded Lubbock-area residents of a power failure on April 16, 1996, that impacted tens of thousands of people in West Texas and New Mexico.
That blackout affected about 750,000 electric customers and lasted about seven hours. It was caused when a worker at Southwestern Public Service Co.'s Tolk substation in Muleshoe performed a routine maintenance chore and something went awry.

My SO is a network manager for a university health sciences center. Every spring (and sometimes in the fall as well) their networks are adversely affected when Joe Sixpac gets on his tractor, drops his 40'' deep-breaking plows into the soil behind his 12-to-18-rows at a span John Deere, and starts out to prepare for the coming cotton or peanut or maize growing season. Inevitably, somewhere, Joe Sixpac (or sometimes, if Joe is flush enough to pay him, Jose Seispaquete) will cut an underground cable (or these days more likely an underground fiber) with some sort of tillage implement (if not a breaking plow, then a disk he didn't lift at the turnrow before he ran it over the utility line). The reason this only happens a few times a year instead of a few times a month -- or a week, if the weather's right -- is that the fiber is buried. Ice doesn't break it, wind doesn't whip it around, and its towers don't collapse or get twisted into scrap by tornado or hurricane-force winds. Fewer people crash vehicles into its support structures, too, by the bye.

But since I live in a part of the world crisscrossed by underground pipelines serving the oil and gas industry and since I'm aware that pipelines aren't guaranteed not to, y'know, explode, I have some idea of the difficulty of locating and repairing underground faults. If you look at that Texas state pipeline map, you'll see that very few counties have no pipelines, by the way. I live in Lubbock County:
and while we're not over-supplied with woods or waterways, we do get our share of wind. So alternative sources are not a new idea for me (and I resent T. Boone Pickens' attempts to hijack not just our groundwater but our wind power). Indeed, in my childhood, nearly every farmhouse had ... a windmill. Most of them were under ten feet in diameter, and on timber platforms about 50 to 75 feet tall (if they predated the 1930s they were shorter; but one of the big things that came out of the 1930s here was rings of trees around houses, to serve as windbreaks against blowing sand, so windmills were made tall enough not to have their power impeded by the trees). By the time I was old enough for middle school, most of those windmills no longer actually pulled water out of wells for houses (but you can still find 'em in pastures, filling stock tanks, today). Here in Lubbock we have the American Wind Power Museum, and if you go there you can learn that, by golly, windchargers meant to run household lights and a radio date back to before FDR. (Sadly, I note their website has taken over the "address" of the very first bulletin board I ever went to the internet through. RIP The Windmill.)

What I'm trying to say is that we need to stop thinking so much about "bigger is better" and think more about "closer is smarter" -- in our power use, our power generation, and our banking and our food sources. "Too big to fail" isn't, really -- it just has more lobbyists than us regular citizens.

Insofar as we're able, -- and the new ruling saying the EPA won't bar states from demanding lower tailpipe emissions, while the CAFE will go up is a good start IMNVHO -- we should of course make it mandatory that efficient applications and consumer items are used whenever and wherever possible.

Of course, I live in an area that gets 11-14'' rain a year (you don't want to be outside that day) so I'm familiar with (some kinds of -- do you turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth?) conservation methods (do you turn off the lights if you leave the room?).