Is the rupture of a 30 inch gas pipeline and subsequent death and destruction in San Bruno, California a harbinger of ongoing infrastructure failures in the coming years?  The 54 year old San Bruno gas pipeline rupture resulted in 7 confirmed deaths as of this posting, numerous injuries, and loss of 37 homes.  Will we see more stories of infrastructure failures like this in the coming years, or will we actively support smart investments to our infrastructure to ensure safe and reliable electricity, gas, water transportation systems?

Here are some warning signs across the USA:

  • In December 2009, a 100 year old water main in San Francisco broke, flooding millions of gallons of water into local businesses and damaging local roadways.
  • The nation’s capital experienced 2500 water main breaks in 2008 alone. 
  • The Minneapolis I35W bridge crossing the Mississippi River collapsed in 2007, claiming 13 lives.
  • 50% of Pennsylvania’s bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete, while other states range from 21% to 56%.
  • The average age of a substation transformer is 42 years, for equipment designed to last 40 years.

Our energy and water infrastructure, along with key transportation assets, are aging in place, severely overstressed and in some cases suffering from postponed maintenance as state and city budgets look to save money, and utilities focus on other projects.   The American Society of Civil Engineers produced a report card that gives the USA an overall grade of D for infrastructure.  

It’s an excellent assessment of bridges, energy, transportation, water and wastewater systems, and offers a compelling, state-by-state view of conditions, issues, and projected costs to fix and upgrade systems.    

Their report points out that our electrical transmission and distribution networks are congested as these assets are working to meet demand that is fast approaching capacity limits.  The estimate to update and expand generation, transmission, and distribution goes as high as $2 trillion by 2030.  Yes, it’s a big number, but to have a vibrant economy, we need to invest in a reliable energy infrastructure.  Without these investments, we’ll face a future of more outages for increasing durations of time.  Considering the economic impacts of outages – estimated by the Galvin Electricity Initiative to cost the American economy $150 billion annually – we cannot afford these losses in our current economic situation.

Smart Grid technologies can help us rebuild our infrastructure and achieve the reliability, resiliency, and safety that our society expects and our economy requires.  We can monitor the operating conditions of transmission networks through use of sophisticated sensor networks of synchrophasors, and respond to problems before failures occur.  We can add energy storage facilities across distribution networks to respond to upstream equipment failures and minimize impacts on downstream consumers.  Technology doesn’t have to supply all the answers– we can use policy to enforce tougher energy efficiency standards for office and home devices and thereby decrease electricity needs and alleviate peak demands.  Leveraging technology and regulatory policy, we can integrate more renewable and distributed sources of electricity generation into the grid to improve resiliency and reliability. 

Smart Grid technologies deliver bi-directional communications and energy capabilities to the existing electrical grid.  Many of these same technologies can also add intelligence to the natural gas, water, and transportation infrastructure.  Sensors can detect leaks and create maintenance alerts, resulting in corrective actions before catastrophic events occur.  Bi-directional communications networks give system operators remote management of assets and improved data for analysis and action.  The end results of improving our infrastructure through policy and technology changes – for energy, water, or transportation – will be worth the investment costs when compared to the costs felt in one community in San Bruno tonight.