Gore Vidal seemed able not only to do anything, but to do it all at the same time. In the early 1960s, you might catch him on a television talk show, read an essay of his in The Nation about Norman Mailer, see “The Best Man” on Broadway or watch him campaign for Congress with Eleanor Roosevelt at his side.
Jermaine Jackson called Wednesday for an end to the public feud that has embroiled his family for more than a week, saying issues over the care of his mother and with late brother Michael’s estate should be handled privately.
I just posted the first part of a two-part feature about America’s electric grid and the risk of blackouts. If this is something you’re interested in, though, there’s a New York Times piece from last week that you should really read.
When we lose our access to electricity, there’s usually more than one thing that went wrong. But, one of the common things that does go wrong, especially in recent years, is extreme weather. The way the grid was built, and the way we manage it, was set up with predictable weather and climate norms in mind. When those things start to drastically shift—as we’ve seen over the last 10 years—the grid becomes vulnerable.
And electricity isn’t the only infrastructure affected.
On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and 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.
The frequency of extreme weather is up over the past few years, and people who deal with infrastructure expect that to continue. Leading climate models suggest that weather-sensitive parts of the infrastructure will be seeing many more extreme episodes, along with shifts in weather patterns and rising maximum (and minimum) temperatures.
“We’ve got the ‘storm of the century’ every year now,” said Bill Gausman, a senior vice president and a 38-year veteran at the Potomac Electric Power Company, which took eight days to recover from the June 29 “derecho” storm that raced from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard and knocked out power for 4.3 million people in 10 states and the District of Columbia.
This story, by Matthew L. Wald and John Schwartz, will give you a great overview of the risks we’re facing—and the high prices we’re paying—as “the norm” becomes an old-fashioned concept.
Power was restored today in India, where more than 600 million people had been living without electricity for two days. That’s good news, but it’s left many Americans wondering whether our own electric grid is vulnerable.
Here’s the good news: The North American electric grid is not likely to crash in the kind of catastrophic way we’ve just seen in India. I’m currently interviewing scientists about the weaknesses in our system and what’s being done to fix them and will have more on that for you tomorrow or Friday.
In the meantime, I wanted to share a chapter from Before the Lights Go Out, my book about electric infrastructure and the future of energy. If you want to understand why our grid is weak, you first need to understand how it works. The key thing to know is this—at any given moment, in any given place, we must have an almost perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand. Fluctuations of even fractions of a percent can send parts of the system towards blackout.
More importantly, that careful balance does not manage itself. Across North America there are people working, 24-7, to make sure that your lights can turn on, your refrigerator runs, and your computer works. They’re called grid controllers or system operators. Most utility customers have never heard of these guys, but we’re all heavily dependent on them. They keep the grid alive and, in turn, they keep our lives functioning—all without the benefit of batteries or any kind of storage.
Joel Mickey has worked behind the curtain for twenty-five years, controlling the flow of electricity first for the Houston Light and Power utility company and now for ERCOT, where he’s the director of market operating systems … Like a lot of controllers, he worked his way up the pole, literally, starting out as an eighteen-year-old lineman —one of the people who show up on your block whenever a rogue tree branch takes out an electric wire. On Mickey’s desk at ERCOT, there’s a black-and-white photo of a very young kid in a hard hat, with a leather harness cinched around his hips. Linemen are a noticeable part of the electric system, but, at least when Mickey started working, they weren’t considered terribly special. Along with maintenance workers at substations and power plant operators, entry-level jobs such as this were lumped together under one bad pun—“Plant Life,” the single-
celled algae at the bottom of a Great Chain of Being, which regarded
the wizards of system control as the epitome of creation. It was pos-
sible to evolve your way up the chain, but it wasn’t easy.
To become a system controller, Mickey had to vie against a hundred-odd applicants for one single job. His first year, he mostly just traveled from place to place throughout the utility’s territory, learning a controller’s craft by watching what the experienced guys did. In fact, Mickey didn’t get to touch much of anything for the first five years. It was an almost-medieval apprenticeship, designed to produce a feudal lord of the electric grid, who would be all-knowing and always right.
That last part was especially important. Back then, each utility company generated its own power, owned its own lines, and controlled its own chunk of the grid, which was still, at that point, mostly walled off from other chunks. A system controller had to make sure there was enough generation to meet demand, but he was also in charge of turning individual power lines on and off for maintenance. At a big utility such as Houston Light and Power, that could mean fifteen or twenty lines in flux during the course of a single day. The controllers had to keep electricity flowing to customers, make sure certain lines were deactivated and reactivated at the right times, and do both of those jobs while simultaneously managing everything else going on in the system. It was a lot like being an air traffic controller, Mickey says. There were lives in his hands.
“A thunderstorm would come through, and a lot of the distribution circuits would trip off from the weather,” he says. “And we had to make decisions on closing the connection back down or not. I mean, occasionally, those lines go down in someone’s backyard and a kid goes out to play. You know, you always have that in the back of your head while you’re just pushing these little buttons. It’s scary sometimes.”
Read the rest of “The Emerald City” — chapter 4 of Before the Lights Go Out
Israeli designer Giora Kariv invented his $9 cardboard bicycle after hearing about someone who’d created a cardboard canoe. The finished product is advertised as remarkably strong and durable:
The Cardboard Bicycle Project is a new, revolutionary and green concept that produces bicycles which are made of durable recycled cardboard.
ERB is an active partner who manages all the business and financial aspects.
The first commercial model of bicycles is designed for large companies as a vehicle for the employees and to large cities as a cheap, light-weight vehicle and parallel to it the electric model is being developed.
The Cardboard Bicycle can withstand water and humidity, coated with a strong layer of brown and white material, making the finished product look like it is made of hard lightweight plastic and can carry riders weighing up to 220 kilograms. The cost to make the bicycle is around $9-$12 and the manufacturer expects that the cost to the consumer would be around $60-$90 depending on what parts they choose to add on.
Dear readers, do not mistake this story for official facts just yet, because it looks like all we’re getting from CW president Mark Pedowitz is a fleeting promise for some sort of Muppets holiday special on his television channel. He didn’t use the word “new,” what he said was this: “I can promise another Muppets special this holiday season.”
Whoa there, Mark Pedowitz. While many of us would be unbelievably excited to see a brand new Muppets special this holiday season, are you really “promising” this kind of thing? I mean, is this thing in super secret development or something? Because it’s August, and the holiday season is a mere three or so months away. Unless you’re referring to what I call “Commercial Christmas,” which starts in one month. That’s even less time to spring a surprise Muppet holiday special upon the world! I feel like if such a special was happening, we would have heard about it earlier than this.
Then again, the Muppets are magic, and I believe in their ability to throw such a show together at the very last second, when all hope has been lost.
Here is the context for this Muppety hubbub: Pedowitz was interviewed by TV Guide at the Television Critics Association fall previews earlier this week. After answering a bunch of other questions concerning the fates of the CW’s many other shows, he wrapped everything up with the quote I provided above. And that was it.
Now, last November, the CW aired A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, which was originally run on NBC in 2009. It was a ratings hit for the network, no doubt because it ran right on the heels of the excitement over The Muppets being released in movie theaters the very same month. And since the Muppets are awesome, there’s no reason why another special wouldn’t be a success. But are they going to simply rerun an existing special, maybe The Muppet Christmas Carol? Or is something new in the works?
If there is a new special that is being produced without our knowledge, then that will make for a really cool holiday television event (for those of us who are suckers for both holiday television and the Muppets, anyway). And maybe I’ll get my Christmas wish: a shot of Sam the Eagle in a Santa hat. (There isn’t one. I’m a little bit sad about it.)
The CW makes Muppet Christmas promises [Tough Pigs]