Where extreme weather and infrastructure meet, bad things happen

I just posted the first part of a two-part feature about America's electric grid and the risk of blackouts. If this is something you're interested in, though, there's a New York Times piece from last week that you should really read.

When we lose our access to electricity, there's usually more than one thing that went wrong. But, one of the common things that does go wrong, especially in recent years, is extreme weather. The way the grid was built, and the way we manage it, was set up with predictable weather and climate norms in mind. When those things start to drastically shift—as we've seen over the last 10 years—the grid becomes vulnerable.

And electricity isn't the only infrastructure affected.

On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.

The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years, and people who deal with infrastructure expect that to continue. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.

“We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,” said Bill Gausman, a senior vice president and a 38-year veteran at the Potomac Electric Power Company, which took eight days to recover from the June 29 “derecho” storm that raced from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard and knocked out power for 4.3 million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia.

This story, by Matthew L. Wald and John Schwartz, will give you a great overview of the risks we're facing—and the high prices we're paying—as "the norm" becomes an old-fashioned concept.

Read the rest of Wald and Schwartz's story in the New York Times


  1. Here’s a thought for the government;

    10% tax rebate to property owners of the purchase of alternate energy producers, such as single dwelling wind generators, solar cells, geothermal, whatever else.
    Then a 10% rebate against the cost of installing the equipment.

    Lots of benefits here;

    1. Stimulates manufacturing of the equipment, which creates jobs.
    2. Stimulates the growth of installation businesses which creates jobs.
    3. Stimulates innovation to produce smaller, more efficient equipment.
    4. Creates a decentralized power grid, which is far less susceptible to weather effects.
    5. A decentralized power grid removes any ability for terrorists to damage the infrastructure.
    6. Can eventually replace nuclear and coal powered generators.
    7. Puts money in the pockets of home owners, not just as tax rebates, but over long term as they sell any excess energy to the utility companies.
    8. Reduces the cost to the utility companies as they reduce the need to maintain large, costly generating stations.
    9. Good for the environment.
    10. Excellent PR for the politicians.

  2. Nope, still no evidence of global climate change, nothing to see here, move along, just seasonal variations, more snow means global warming is bunk

    I would keep going but I might starty crying again

    1.  Well you can be comforted that the idiot deniers will be dying right along with the rest of us.

  3.  The point of the article is well taken but using PEPCO as an example weakens the argument!  That company for years has deferred maintenance to boost dividends to share holders and has been identified in one industry report as among the 25% utility companies with the worst reliability record in the US.  So yes, regular and massive outages of long duration but it looks like other utility companies even in the region are responding much better to similar events.

    1. PEPCO’s malfeasance can cause spreading blackouts that will affect areas far larger than PEPCOstan. One of the risks of our grid. 

  4. Very aware of our precarious situation, but here’s the question: if you rent an apartment in a major urban area (as I do, as many of us do) what can you really do to prepare for the inevitable blackout? I wish I could be off the grid, but it’s tough when you are at the heart of the matrix. Any practical ideas, anyone? I can’t install a solar panel, I can’t pop a windmill on my roof (it’s not my roof), etc.

    1. Honestly if you can’t gain access to the main breaker box for the apartment (or even if it is laid out like that) then there isn’t much you can do.

      Really about the best you could do would be a set of batteries and a few inverters.  Plug up what you need.  Recharging the batteries wouldn’t really be possible (maybe a stationary bike with a generator, or if you wanted to be extreme a small generator with a custom muffler vented outside).

      Outside of some storms with strong wind (which is usually at most once a summer where I live) most of the black outs happen in winter (above ground power lines).  So the plus side is the fact the fridge/freezer contents won’t go bad, but a pipe could burst, and it’s going to be damn cold inside.  (I do have a fireplace with insert so that will at least make one room liveable.)

    2. Well, for one thing, a Indian-style blackout isn’t actually inevitable here. There’s more on that coming this week. 

      In fact, by living in a city, in multi-family housing, you’re actually living more sustainably than the vast majority of Americans. The Americans who use the least energy per capita are New Yorkers. Cities are green. 

      Shared infrastructure comes with risks, and we’re dealing with some of that as we face extreme weather. But talking about that is not the same as saying that any minute now we’re all going to have to live off the grid. Scale matters here. 

      1. “Cities are green.”

        Not surprised, as most of them was funded before motor vehicles were common. This means that the tighter you could pack people, the more efficient things got in terms of distribution and transport.

    3. Switch to a non electric  lifestyle, manual and analog everything. Sort of like camping indoors.
       Lots of battery power backup. Also the hand crank emergency power packs for lower voltages or maybe a stationary bike hooked up to a generator. You can get window sized portable solar panels that will do 12V so you can keep somethings powered or recharged.

    4. Batteries and LED flashlights will keep you from tripping over stuff in the dark. A little nonperishable food. That’s really all you need. When and if a blackout hits your city, all you need is to be sociable enough to make new ties with your neighbors and cooperate. 

  5. Not just east Texas, either. Our subdivision here in southern Michigan was, according to tales told by the oldest occupants, built on reclaimed swampland. There’s lots of clay just beneath the surface – I can confirm this after digging some fence post holes years ago. This year’s dry / hot spells are wreaking havoc with the ground all around us.

    I went to mow the lawn last night, for the first time in over a month (I always said I’d be happy to pave over the lawn, but I’ve actually been watering it lately so I don’t have to re-seed  everything). There’s spots in my yard that have sank over an inch in that time. Spots that I used to glide over were now ruts, leaving me with a mower handle wedged into my guts. Lawn is peeling away from sidewalks, leaving gaps big enough to stick a finger into. There’s portions of sidewalk in our neighborhood that have buckled and are jutting up like mountain crags as the earth collapses beneath them.

    We’ve been in this house for over ten years, and I’ve never seen this sort of change before. Heck, I haven’t seen this kind of thing outside of farm land, and even that took years to see this level of change. This is stuff you can see in a season. It’s crazy.

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