A man must stand on the side of a mountain a very long time with his mouth open before a roast duck flies into it – Chinese (I think) proverb
One fine summer day when I was a kid there was a power outage that impacted a sizeable chunk of the eastern parkland region of my home province. A cat had gotten into one of the larger central power substations, whereupon it apparently completed a circuit of some kind and used up all its nine lives in a brief but no doubt spectacular blaze of glory. Several thousand square miles of agricultural and small-town life spent the rest of the day without power.
That cat did teach me a valuable lesson. Outages like that were reminders that the vast power grid is, in some senses, surprisingly fragile. That one well-placed cat could shut off power to a thousand farms and towns for a day provided a powerful lesson in not taking these things for granted.
These days though our affluence allows us to take a lot of things for granted. The world is at our fingertips, as long as we can access Amazon or some similar lifeline. We just lie there on the couch and order stuff. A few finger taps, less effort than it takes to make a sandwich, and the box of delight lands on our doorstep before we know it. Bad experiences are when the package takes a few days longer than we thought.
Few people give any thought to what makes this all possible. We have moved far beyond worrying about whether we will have electricity; we just assume it will always be there, like the whole supply chain. We don’t think at all about the endless distribution systems and infrastructure that makes it all work.
Taking things for granted isn’t new, and we can’t spend our day being grateful for everything or we’d never get anything done. But we need to start doing a better job of what can truly be counted on, and why. We don’t think about our oxygen supply being cut off if a tree gets cut down, because there are billions more. But we can lose our electrical systems if a major transmission line goes down or there is a malfunction at a major substation, and neither of those events are a stretch of the imagination. Consider what the impact would be if terrorists blew up 10 major transmission lines in North America or Europe, and just how easy that would be. They are unguarded everywhere, and a lunatic with, say, nothing more than a bag of cats could do untold damage.
It isn’t news to say that our daily habits have been completely rewired by phone and Internet technology. It seems like that’s all kids know, like when twelve year olds ask their phones about the weather rather than walking 12 feet to the door and checking. Siri can tell you the best pizza within a 20 block radius, and you know it objectively is the best because Siri is some sort of all-knowing Buddhist monk who would never lie, right? Or are all those “reviews” emanating from windowless warehouses with hundreds of monkeys at keyboards selling reviews and ratings to the highest bidder. It happens. That’s who decides what you might eat tonight. And we think preppers are nuts.
We’ve come to rely on apps and shortcuts and e-tools to do everything for us. That’s fine; every generation takes technology to another level. But now, we not only take our infrastructure base for granted, we assume we can rewire it at will just because we want a better one. That works for some systems; markets continually undergo these large seismic shifts like from film to digital photography. But the biggest problem is that wholesale changes to infrastructure are nearly impossible these days, especially energy ones.
Vested interests have taken over. They come from all over; almost any development project faces opponents who now have the power to kill or critically wound it. A handful of people can delay multi-billion dollar projects for years by chaining themselves to various things. It’s not just fossil fuel projects that are attacked either; as has been documented elsewhere there are many green energy projects also being thwarted.
There is also the intertia of existing businesses to contend with. Wholesale changes to energy sources would entail enormous upheaval, layoffs and closed doors. Yes, new jobs can be created via new technologies, but that is not painless and is creates enormous social problems. Silicon Valley and Detroit might average out to a nice city, but that doesn’t mean one emptied into the other when change occurred. Right or wrong, there is also a lot of pressure through lobbyists and political means to help maintain the status quo.
The end result is that progress is extremely difficult. To build any new large scale project is virtually impossible. It would take decades of consultations, reviews, and approvals to build a new railroad, pipeline system, hydroelectric dam or major reconfiguration of a power grid. There are groups that try to thwart new construction, and groups that fight to maintain existing industrial channels.
Yet there is currently a full court press on to have everything go electric or renewable. Proponents don’t seem to see any impediments at all, other than destroying the businesses they take issue with. Most seem to have no clue as to the greater context. EVs aren’t popular because they take too long to charge, so let’s develop supercharger technology and put it everywhere! Problem solved. Except…what does that do to the electrical grid? Does anyone know? Does anyone think of that?
The power infrastructure was built a hundred years ago, and most major power sources were either part of the original build out or added to it in strategic places. The delivery system has been fairly well defined for decades now. So what happens when an apartment building goes all-Tesla all-supercharger and starts drawing more power than a small shopping mall? What happens when 50 apartment buildings do the same? Or a thousand?
Well I can guess what will happen; a generation will comb through the App store looking for a solution to the problem. A sinking feeling will set in when they realize no help is forthcoming, not even if they set the app price filter to “greater than $10.”
There is no solution, when we can’t build anything. Tantrums and threats and protests won’t help, because any large-scale solution that’s proposed will, within seconds, have a squadron of protesters on site. There will be a rare beetle, or a bird’s nest, or a view, or a theoretical but improbable risk, or some reason why this project is totally unacceptable.
Our children are being boxed in. They are handed tools to make their lives easier at every step, they are being told that we need to go green to survive, and governments are going into debt at rates faster than anyone would have thought possible. At the same time, the new solutions they’ve been led to believe are necessary are going to be unbelievably hard to accomplish. We think they will be easy, because everything is – if a thousand people can stop a billion dollar project, then surely we can build what we want just as easily, right?
Well, it doesn’t work that way. Apps can order pizzas, but they can’t clear protestors and build things. Electrical capacity can be stopped in a heartbeat or a cat-flash; adding capacity can take years or far longer. We urgently need to understand that.