Archive for the ‘power grid’ Category

This post ought to be titled, “The Engineers Were Right, and the Politicians are Spineless Invertebrates,” but then people would complain that I’m just whining and casting stones because I’m an engineer. Well, I’m casting stones, but no whine here — I’m really frosted about this. I’ve driven that bridge too many times to be satisfied with the “buck stops somewhere else, we are not responsible” mentality of not only the Pawlenty administration, but many of the ones that preceded it, and not only here in Minnesota, and Louisiana, but lots of other places too. It’s glamorous and fun to build, but just dull and boring to maintain, and maintenance costs money that no one sees.

So in the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis we see a slight miscalculation of a “no taxes” administration and it’s “we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem” Commissioner of Transportation. Although with gross dishonesty they’ve stated “money was never an issue,” that’s patent drivel. Money was, and is, all of the problem in the precipitous decline of our national infrastructure.

It’s also blatant dishonesty to say, as the Pawlenty / Molnau administration has done, that “we had no warning, we were never told!” Just like Bush at New Orleans, they are all surprised by this sudden problem, which they thought they had pushed off safely into the future. This in spite of constant warnings from engineers about the Levees in New Orleans, or the progressive structural problems in the 35W bridge (and other similar bridges in Minnesota, of this and other designs), they are surprised, and yet not to blame! Their own engineers complained for 15 years about the poor condition of the bridge, but if stalling action saved money today, the Pawlenty administration did it so they could say, “we held the taxes down.” They hoped, apparently, that the bill for this neglect would come due in someone else’s administration.

The Transportation Commissioner piously notes that “we have a maintenance plan, within the resources we have available,” while the Governor vetoes gas-tax increases targeted at road repair, that would have provided these resources. QED! We have no problem!

But the chief tax-cutting think-tank, the Taxpayer’s League, now tut-tuts and says “lets not start the blame game,” but so help me there IS blame here, blame laid at the doorstep of the last several Transportation Commissioners, and the Governor, and the layers of faceless bureaucrat-managers who watered down the straight talk in the engineers’ and bridge-inspectors’ reports into the relaxed pablum that let these people — spineless politicians all — look aside and hence “be surprised” when the bridge fell.

Make no mistake, we are consuming our civil infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams, power lines, parks, public buildings, pipelines, the air-traffic control system, and more — as if it were endless and as if we had no responsibility for it at all. We’re consuming it because we don’t have the courage to tax ourselves to repair what we have inherited from our forebears. It’s that simple.

There are more buzzards coming home to roost, mark my words. We spend money without end in Iraq to combat our enemies the terrorists, but for maintenance of our domestic infrastructure, to quote Pogo the Possum, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


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I flew commercially a few days ago, so I was entertained (so to speak) by what security expert Bruce Schneier calls “Security Theater:” the TSA’s fumbling and worthless screening of air travelers. All this fuss and not an ounce of it adds anything to our actual safety from terrorists. (For more on this see a recent article in the Times by Randall Stross who called it “theater of the absurd.”)

I’ve blogged on the subject of how the people over at the Department of Homeland Security have basically failed to take any steps to protect one of our key infrastructure components, the Internet, from being attacked and shut down by terrorists. Then today I see an article in the New York Times on how the insurgency (whoever they are) has in effect electrically isolated Baghdad from the rest of Iraq by taking down the towers that support Iraq’s 400-kilovolt transmission lines. The result is that Baghdadis now enjoy only 6 1/2 hours of electricity per day, which is down from 20 – 24 hours per day under Saddam. No wonder they are wheezed at us. How would we feel?

Now this may seem like just another wretched indicator that events in Iraq are rapidly going out of our control; I mean, 30 towers down here, 45 down there, oh bother. It’s far away, almost another planet to most of us. But as I was padding around the airport in my socks while they x-rayed my shoes for explosives, was struck by the thought that if I were a terrorist I would not be trying to bring down an airliner — I’ve already got the US government spending billions tilting at airborne windmills — I’d attack the US power grid.

And I’d do that because our long-distance high voltage transmission network is running essentially at 100% capacity and there are few plans afoot to change that. Therefore, blow a few towers and you could black out 20% of the country with no trouble, since we have absolutely no reserve capacity to route power around a major tie-line outage. The source of this is the North American Electric Reliability Council, which has issued some perfectly dismal reports lately on just being able to meet our basic electric needs over the next couple of years. And this doesn’t count loss of highlines to terrorist actions.

So, could the Federal government take a few minutes away from it’s efforts to strip away our constitutional liberties and do something concrete like use eminent domain to ram through some new highlines, before some manaic blows them down on us? Like enacting some really meaningful energy standards on businesses and homes, so that our demand drops in absolute numbers? And of course, start focusing on localized energy resources such as wind and biofuels so that we don’t have to run electrons from one end of the country to the other across lines we may not be able to defend?

In other words, guys, could we start addressing our real terrorist-exposures and cut out the theater?

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