Power to the People

Dick Groth, CSE's East Coast sales rep, hails from Cleveland. A proud native, he's quick to point out that the city's downtown is not as bad as it's often portrayed and, in fact, has undergone a lot of revitalization in part due to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and new stadiums for the Indians and Browns.

09/01/2003


Dick Groth, CSE's East Coast sales rep, hails from Cleveland. A proud native, he's quick to point out that the city's downtown is not as bad as it's often portrayed and, in fact, has undergone a lot of revitalization in part due to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and new stadiums for the Indians and Browns. Similarly, an architect involved with the renovation of the Renaissance Center in Detroit pointed out to me at a holiday party that the project, along with new stadiums for the Motor City's sports teams, has gone a long way toward boosting Detroit's downtown. And, of course, pulsating Times Square in New York is perhaps the ultimate testament to urban renewal. Yet all of these metropolises, despite their renewed vigor, went black in one of the biggest power failures in history. At first, a collective sigh of relief was breathed when it was revealed that this was not another terrorist attack. Yet the results of the Aug. 14 blackout in the Northeast achieved much the same effect and once again revealed the paper-thin infrastructure that underlies our country. While it's terrific that we're revitalizing our cities with new stadiums and office renovations, it seems to me that such efforts are more like a shot of Botox, when what we really need is a hip replacement.

Embarrassingly, the blackout also gave us a glimpse as to what our society truly defines as mission-critical: TV. While the rest of Broadway was black, ABC News broadcast its coverage of the massive outage from its Times Square Studios without a hitch. They obviously had emergency power systems. Yet the subway lines in Manhattan did not. Nor did the pumps that provide Cleveland's residents with water.

Fortunately, there were no fatalities or major injuries—and in an amazing show of citizenship, there was no rioting or looting. But why were these people put in this situation? To revisit an old rant: greed. As U.S. businesses, including public utilities, continue to strive for increased profits, the core that supports these businesses continues to erode. Call it a house of cards or the chickens coming home to roost, but our debility, due to years of infrastructure neglect, is finally being exposed. But what to do?

The bottom line, according to a retired electric utility poleman I recently had a conversation with, was that the utilities will never pay for the needed grid improvements. First, he said they don't have the money (or aren't willing to part with it) and second, they don't have the right of ways. The Feds, he argued, will have to step in. But I say that's not going to happen. Like the building hardening lessons we've learned from 9/11, it will be up to the engineering community, among others, to take action. And despite a credibility blow from our friends at Enron (greed again), engineers need to get back on the distributed generation bandwagon and convince clients—both private and public—that more must be done on their end to ensure that power is there when it's needed so that people can at least be assured of drinking water or that they won't be trapped on the subway.





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