The Pentagong Show

The Pentagong Show
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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Electrickety: The Don of the Ion Age.

A coaled future few shun.

AS posted in July: New Delhi (CNN) -- India suffered its second massive power failure in two consecutive days Tuesday, depriving as many as 600 million people -- half the country's population -- of electricity and disrupting transportation networks for hours.

That's almost 10% of the world's population.

In the US, just last year in San Diego, though few remember,  "The Great Blackout of 2011 gridlocked traffic, closed schools and canceled flights. Electricity wasn’t fully restored until days later, when the problem had appeared to be caused by a maintenance project gone awry near Yuma, Ariz.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) launched a joint inquiry into the lapse, which is common for major energy outages. Spokespeople for both agencies declined to speak for this article, but in a report released last month, the two agencies noted that a major power outage in the Southwest in February was caused by two main factors: unpredictable weather and the unreliability of the grid."

 It's come to pass that just as the only thing predictable about the weather is its unpredictability, the only thing reliable about the grid is its unreliability, never more so than when hit by an unpredictable weather event.

Yet even beyond that, the slowdown in the monsoon rains in India did not happen   overnight. It was days ... weeks into the unpredictable pattern that the predictable slowdown in the hydrological flow feeding its hydroelectric dams slowed so severely it curtailed the utility's ability to provide electric current. The current needed to drive India's businesses, so we have the impact of climate change directly channeling the slowed flow of current to the slowed flow of currency, as business output grinds to a halt, dropping the value of the rupee.

The currency depends not on the past, but on the current, current, see?

Proving that, like revenge, Electricity is best when served coaled.

Yet even as the supply and infrastructure for delivering the juice grows ever more rickety and unreliable, the utter dependance on it, especially as computers and the internet get woven into everyday habits, becomes more and more intractable, the possibility of existence without it, more unthinkable.

The lack of AC alone would kill millions in a year.

What this all suggests is that the way we've generated and delivered electricity in the past is not a good paradigm to follow for the future. As tornadoes and hurricanes get stronger and more widespread, as derechos completely take vast swathes of the country by surprise and rip up an installed base of infrastructure that was supposed to pay itself off over its projected lifespan of 20 years, but is gone in an hour, what we need to consider before rebuilding becomes more complex, and the chances that we'll get a ROI (return on Investment) worth the money invested becomes harder to fathom.

Risk is rising in all our systems, and their ability to transmit untenable stress from one system to another is the other thing that efficiency brings us. As Efficiency increases, the Robustness of a system decreases, leaving it more and more vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Increased likelihood of concatenating failure is built into the system as a weak link in one has repercussion on all dependent and interconnected sytems, bringing collateral damage that can be so severe as to impact the collapsing structure's ability to recover.

Fukushima comes to mind.

The method in which the satellite, Dawn, was powered to one of the solar systems largest asteroids, Vesta, was via an ion engine. Using electric fields to accelerate a beam of positively charged xenon ions, which shoot out of the aircraft at 90,000 mph, the spacecraft didn't have to carry but a ton of fuel on its 1.7 billion mile voyage.

This is what we need on earth. To look at he planet as more as what we're turning it into: a place inhospitable to stability and unsuitable for long range plans. By looking at the problems of our home planet with the same eye that we use to solve the dilemmas of interplanetary travel, the exigencies of our planet can be turned into the providers of our juice, such that lightening is harnessed, local solutions are implemented, backup systems are designed to be usable so that they can be used and abused on a periodic basis, so that when we need them they'll actually function.

Because the coaled truth is, we can't go on doing as we've been doing. Not from a lefty, feelie, don't hurt the plants, mentality, but from a hard-nosed look at the realities that are changing right before our eyes as the rug's pulled from under our foetus.

Cross-hatching is an artistic method whereby two sets of parallel lines are drawn such that they intersect each other at an angle. If you look at the diamonds formed via their intersection, you would be overwhelmed contemplating the complexity of drawing them all singularly. The diamonds are like the future we're faced with. What we lack is courage, leadership, insight. As watching the two political conventions reminds us,  the first series of lines is there. How we cross them is still up to us.

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