What does an aging electric grid mean during a long, hot summer?
A new report co-authored by Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Col. Robert B. Stephan, a former Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security for Infrastructure Protection, suggets that America may be dangerously unprepared for serious emergencies. Simply put, the U.S. has become increasingly dependent on overseas suppliers for key infrastructure components, and this could make rebuilding from a disaster more problematic.
One serious problem is America's aging electric grid. Demand for electricity has grown by 25% since 1990, and the summer months prove particularly challenging. Likewise, transit systems and highways face extreme heat that has caused structural problems.
As Matthew Wald and John Schwartz report in the New York Times, "the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms."
Some of the problems they report:
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.
In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100. According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm.
Instances of deformed transit systems and problems supplying power are the worrying tip of the iceberg when it comes to America's aging infrastructure. Overall, they should serve as a wake-up call for action, and the U.S. needs to take steps in the immediate future to rebuild both the nation's manufacturng base and key systems such as the electric grid, transportation systems, nuclear power plants, water infrastructure and treatment plants, and petroleum pipelines.
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