Monday, July 30, 2012

Infrastructure and Climate Change

Kurt Cobb makes a point I've been trying to make for a while now - our current infrastructure was built for a different planet:
This summer has shown just what can happen when those built-in tolerances for heat, moisture (or lack of it) and wind are exceeded. The New York Times did an excellent short piece providing examples of some of those effects:

1.A jet stuck on the tarmac as its wheels sank into asphalt softened by 100-degree heat.
2.A subway train derailed by a kink in the track due to excessive heat.
3.A power plant that had to be shut down due to lack of cooling water when the water level dropped below the intake pipe.
4.A "derecho", a severe weather pattern of thunderstorms and very high straight-line winds, that deprived 4.3 million people of power in the eastern part of the United States, some for eight days.
5.Drainage culverts destroyed by excessive rains.

Past attempts to forecast the possible costs of climate change have been largely inadequate. They failed because of unanticipated effects on and complex interconnections among various parts of critical infrastructure.

Back in 2007 Yale economist William Nordhaus wrote in a paper that "[e]conomic studies suggest that those parts of the economy that are insulated from climate, such as air-conditioned houses or most manufacturing operations, will be little affected directly by climatic change over the next century or so." Having air-conditioning does not do you much good, however, if the electricity is out. And, manufacturing operations depend on reliable electric service. Many manufacturing operations are also water-intensive and so will be affected by water shortages. In addition, damage to transportation systems (as detailed above) could hamper the delivery of manufactured products.
He forgot to mention roads buckling from the heat, which happened here in the Midwest earler this month. And let's not forget barges on the Mississippi being stranded and unable to ship due to low water levels:
For those who make their living along the Mississippi River, helping ship many of the country’s most vital commodities, this year’s drought has inevitably raised the specter of 1988. That’s when the river got so low that barge traffic came to a standstill — and the industry lost $1 billion. Unfortunately, 2012 could be worse.
 And now, right on schedule, we see a massive power blackout in India:
NEW DELHI: There has been a major power failure in north India since late Sunday night affecting at least six states.

The states affected include Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, UP, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.
"Yes there are problems with Northern Grid, we are trying to restore it", said SK Soonee, CEO of Power System Operating Co (PSOC).

PSOC manages the Northern Power Grid. Officials sources said while the exact reasons for the grid failure are being ascertained , over drawl of power by states could have led to the problem.
The restoration of the grid may take a few more hours even as the engineers are trying to restore it since early morning.

Power supply in some pockets is being restored and the first priority is for public services like hospitals and transport.

"We are hoping to restore the grid in the next one or two hours. We are giving essential loads for services like Railways, Metro and Hospitals," chairman and managing director of Power Grid Corporation AM Nayak said.

Meanwhile, thousands of office-going commuters in the national capital are facing severe hardship as Delhi Metro services have been largely disrupted owing to the Northern Grid failure
Major power failure in north India, Delhi Metro services hit (Times of India)
Power cuts are a common occurrence in Indian cities because of a fundamental shortage of power and an ageing grid. The chaos caused by such cuts has led to protests and unrest on the streets.

Earlier in July, crowds in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon blocked traffic and clashed with police after blackouts there.

Correspondents say that India urgently needs a huge increase in power production, as hundreds of millions of its people are not even connected to the national grid.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has long said that India must look to nuclear energy to supply power to the people.

Estimates say that nuclear energy contributes only 3% to the country's current power supply. But the construction of some proposed nuclear power stations have been stalled by intense local opposition.
Power cut causes major disruption in northern India (BBC)

You will recall it was just last week when torrential downpours overwhelmed Beijing’s infrastructure. Note that the affected population of 300 million is nearly equal to that of the United States. It seems like the next phase of capitalist expansion due to the two billion consumers (!!!!) of China and India is meeting with some unintended SNAFU's. Please note also the mention of Guragon, the libertarian's ideal model city of the future.

I wonder if these nearly daily stories of extreme weather and infrastructure failure are having an impact. Remember, it takes an enourmous amount of resources just to conteract entropy and maintain the infrastructure we have, as anyone who has read the book World Without Us or seen the Discovery Channel special knows. How will we expand the economy when we keep having to spend resources rebuilding what we've got after it's been destroyed over and over again? And see this:

Energy Shortage Constrains India's Economic Growth (Planetizen via WSJ):
Energy shortages in coal, natural gas, and diesel fuel are constraining India's growth. At the heart of the shortages are government subsidies that keep prices low, state-run monopolies that are unable to increase production, and costly imports.

"A shortage of coal, which accounts for more than half of the nation's energy supply, is crippling the power sector, forcing companies to delay the opening of multibillion-dollar projects. India in April announced an 80% jump in coal imports ...but many plants still run below capacity for lack of coal."
Electricity shortages have resulted in clinics being forced to dump vaccines due to lack of continual refrigeration. As many as 400 million rural residents may lack access to electricity.

Coal shortages are largely a result of the inability of Coal India, India's state-run monopoly, to produce enough due to many factors, including old equipment and security threats.

"(Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) is beginning to realize that there's a very bleak outlook in terms of energy security, and that this is going to create the single largest constraint on the economy", said one energy consultant. Deregulation of energy will be challenging.

"State-run energy companies are racking up billions of dollars in losses by selling auto fuel, cooking gas and electricity at artificially low prices to protect consumers from global cost increases." Consequently, residents expect low prices on these fuels.

"India has a very distorted system of subsidies," Jaipal Reddy, minister for petroleum and natural gas, said. "But how, in a vibrant democracy like in India, do you change the system suddenly?"
What articles like this always assume is that these problems are just economic - that is just a matter of inefficient organization, and nothing whatsoever to do with limits to growth. Even so, social and political limitations are just as real as economic ones, and often just as insurmountable.

UPDATE: Now half is India is without power, a number nearly twice the population of the U.S. (and the "I" in BRIC):
More than half the country was hit by the power cuts after three grids collapsed - one for a second day. Hundreds of trains have come to a standstill and hospitals are running on backup generators. The country's power minister has blamed the crisis on states drawing too much power from the national grid. The breakdowns in the northern, eastern, and north-eastern grids mean around 600m people have been affected in 20 of India's states.
Hundreds of millions without power in India (BBC)

India's energy crisis threatens its economic growth (BBC)
670 million people—roughly half of India's population—has been without electricity for two days, following a massive blackout. The United States has a much more modern grid, but only nine years ago a blackout in the Northeast of this country cut power to 45 million. 
India's in the dark, are we next? (BoingBoing)

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