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Heavy weather over the horizon

August 6, 2008
by Rob Lafferty

I'm neither scientist nor soothsayer, but like most folks, I can spot a trend developing. So like most folks, I'm thinking that we're looking at some hard fiscal times ahead. I'm also willing to bet that we're in for heavy weather for a long time to come, but nobody I know will take that bet.

Science can teach us about the cause behind monster storms, and science could minimize some of the forces that drive those heavy weather patterns, but over the next few decades we'll still be facing storms of a magnitude that modern society has never seen.

I don't care if my local weather is caused by global warming or global cooling or climate change or whatever labels you cares to use. I can read that a seven-square-mile ice sheet has broken off the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf near Ellesmere Island in Canada, but I only care about the effect that may have on me.

Lots of people I know are thinking the same thoughts and are preparing for heavy weather by stockpiling those necessities of life that are subject to shortages. On Maui, that means rice and toilet paper for times when the supply barges can't come into a safe harbor. In the Oregon woods that means extra firewood and candles for when the winter snows come and the power might be out for days at a time.

Wherever you may live, it's hard to stockpile a lot of drinking water. Fresh water and electrical power are intertwined in almost house in America. If the power supply for an entire town goes down, the power to run the municipal water pumps also goes down. On Maui, if no juice is flowing out of those central power plants that sit just above sea level in Kahului and Ma‘alaea, there's also no water for most of the island.

Maui isn't alone in this. Most of the cities of Earth have only a tenuous link to a sufficient supply of water for their residents, and that link always depends on large amounts of electricity to pump water to users.

We can use science to help us cope with weather events that can shut down municipal water and power services. The technology already exists that can decentralize our power system while at the same time lower the total system cost, create more jobs and improve our air quality. We don't have that kind of system because the American energy industry is based on concepts of local monopoly and speculation for profit.

As a nation we might be willing to pay an honest price for upgrading to a decentralized, dependable power distribution system that draws from multiple sources. Cities and counties, however, don't have control of the electricity supply system like they do with publicly owned local water systems. You can live without electricity, but not without water. When you need electricity to get your water, however, both resources become equally important.

Maui already has most of the components for a dependable, off-grid water supply system that could collect water when it rains on the wet side, use solar and wind power to pump water up to storage tanks high on the dry side, then let gravity provide water pressure for the towns below. That water might even generate more electricity as it flows back down the hill. The major hurdles to overcome are issues of entitlement and resource management, not design or function.

Most of us don't want to generate our own electricity, so we aren't going to become a nation of solar photovoltaic owners overnight. We just want to plug our stuff in and pay a bill every month. But most of us also like the idea of a decentralized power grid fed by a diversity of sources, and we see a trend developing. There are a growing number of sources available, and there is a remarkable new battery under development that features a new method of storing energy from sunlight and using it after dark.

Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT, has announced that he and Matthew Kanan have developed a process of harnessing solar energy to split ordinary water into hydrogen and oxygen, then recombining those gases inside a fuel cell that can power vehicles or even entire homes at night. According to Nocera, their project was inspired by the simple miracle of photosynthesis that all plants are capable of performing.

That's the kind of technological progress we need to support, not the old practice of drilling for more oil. But a majority of poll respondents consistently say they support more offshore drilling and opening up wilderness preserves in Alaska for exploitation. That's just typical junkie behavior of protecting your supply; it's not a rational national policy. We need to rise above that level of reaction to the crises we're facing.

Both presidential candidates were strongly opposed to any new offshore drilling before the most recent rise in gasoline prices. Both have changed their stance in recent weeks. It's the politically safe position to take, and both sides will make it a campaign issue, but it's all just talk. The oil companies aren't eager to open new fields in the thawing tundra of Alaska, and they aren't drilling many new wells in the offshore areas open for lease already.

Even talking about drilling for more oil anywhere is a waste of limited resources. Every energy crisis solution needs to focus on weaning our economy off its fossil fuel addiction, not searching out a fresh supply of the stuff. And forget about the fact that it could take at least five years before oil from any new sources could reach the marketplace. By that time, burning petroleum might be a crime.

We make a lot of very useful things with plastics made from petroleum. One of those useful things is PVC water pipe. While we can make more plastic products recyclable, we still need oil to make the original product. As a resource oil will only increase in value, and it won't be long – a decade or two, tops – before burning gas or diesel fuel in combustion engines will be just as illegal as burning trash in a suburban backyard is now. Burning massive quantities to generate electricity will be an archaic practice, unthinkable in the modern world of tomorrow.

We'll be needing that oil for plastic to make water filter canisters, because we'll be needing better filters in most parts of the country. Water quality is a looming massive problem for America as more intense rain events bring more flooding that causes contamination of groundwater and municipal wells. The task of restructuring the energy use of the country is small when compared to effort needed to clean up the water sources for most of the nation's taps.

In addition to the cost of repairing storm damage to the general infrastructure, we're also facing the huge investment needed to replace aging components of that infrastructure. Almost every state has reported record breakdowns in water infrastructure during the past three years, in what one expert referred to as "an epidemic of breaking pipes that is causing unprecedented havoc."

The U.S. has the resources to prepare for the kind of emergencies we'll be facing – we just can't afford to maintain a global military presence at the same time. The Army Corps of Engineer does remarkable work in the most difficult of conditions; those highly trained soldier/engineers should be available to improve public infrastructure right here at home. The hundreds of billions of dollars we've wasted by invading and occupying Iraq could have made us safer by making us more energy self-sufficient.

But even if we had that money in our hands right now, we as a nation have been in a crisis management mode for too long. We haven't been working towards long-term solutions to our problems; we've been practicing triage – patch this problem up with a quick fix and move on to the next. That mindset may change in the coming years, but a lot of smart folks won't wait. They're already thinking about how to provide enough of their own power to at least keep a refrigerator running if the grid goes down for a few weeks or months.

They’re also thinking about water. They might be able to store enough drinking water to last a few weeks at a time, but how will they take showers and flush toilets and water their veggies if the municipal system doesn’t deliver tap water?

Solutions to those kinds of water problems won’t be as easy to find as the solution to our energy troubles, but it’s just as important that we try. There’s one advantage – the water delivery system is publicly owned in most places, and water is a commonly owned resource in most jurisdictions, too. That means it’s possible to control the resource and avoid the negative consequences of profit margins and speculation.

There’s not much time, however, because the latest trends indicate that a storm cloud is building just over the horizon. It looks to be the first of many more to come…