What You Can Learn From The Wires And Pipes In Your Home

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Here & Now Guest:

  • Scott Huler, author of "On The Grid."

Author Scott Huler set out to follow all the wires, cables, pipes, drains, sewers, and roads from his backyard to understand the infrastructure grid that makes our lives possible.

He says surveyors have shaped our lives even before our house is built, and three of the four Presidents on Mount Rushmore worked as surveyors. Huler's book, "On The Grid," is now available in paperback.

This segment originally broadcast last year.

Book excerpt: "On The Grid"

By Scott Huler

Get out your wallet--and be glad for the opportunity. "Infrastructure is destiny" is the catchphrase of the moment among the infrastructurati, but I got to using instead the phrase "our infrastructure, ourselves," which I think comes closer to the point. Since the end of the Roman Empire, allowing your infrastructure to rot has been a fine way to speed societal collapse. Nothing new there, yet we've chosen that road and seem to be sticking to it. Back in 1981, the authors of America in Ruins, which suddenly got everybody talking about infrastructure, estimated that we were behind in our infrastructure investment by about $842 billion, and they figured that put us in crisis. Every couple of years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) puts out another report card, and we get another spate of Ds. In 2009, recall, they said it would take $2.2 trillion to get us back up to speed. In 2008 the Urban Land Institute estimated that we run an annual infrastructure funding deficit of at least $170 billion.

People actually can take action to shore up the infrastructure. Atlanta, which was losing 20 percent of its drinking water to leaky pipes and fouling its rivers and creeks with combined sewer overflows, in 2001 elected mayor Shirley Franklin, who passed a 1¢ sales tax increase and an increase in water rates; she called herself the sewer mayor. "If we don't protect water, we will be without water," she told the ASCE. "It's a question of who's going to pay, how much are you going to be willing to pay in order to insure that your children live the kind of life that we as Americans have promised them?" Atlanta has so far been willing to pay $4 billion. But most of us, like indulgent parents of lazy children, shake our heads at those Ds and exact a promise to try harder next time, or maybe we even start another study or another plan. Then we wipe our hands and move on.

And by "we" I don't mean "you"--I mean me, too. The original ham-handed Raleigh pogrom against garbage disposals, poorly managed though it was, had genuine value, and we all know that small steps add up: Raleigh has a fabulously low sanitary sewer overflow rate because it simply flushes its sewer pipes according to a schedule. So the very least I could do would be to stop using our garbage disposal--but I haven't. We have a baby, and he loves to go spelunking in the garbage, so our kitchen trash can is near the back door, on the other side of a baby gate. Leaning over the gate, trying to use an elbow to push open the spring-loaded can lid and somehow scrape food scraps into the trash? When I can just stand over the sink and stuff it all into the magic hole before I toss the plate in the dishwasher? Garbage disposal 1, best and well-informed intentions 0. I mean to do better, I honestly do, but ... I'll just keep my fingers crossed that regular pipe maintenance will keep my zucchini fragments from clogging our neighborhood sewers, and that the treatment plant keeps on scooping them out.

No matter how often someone reminds us that these systems are important and need our attention, we don't change. China spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure; Europe spends 5 percent; the United States spends about 2.4 percent, and that's down from 3 percent 50 years ago. Vehicle miles traveled in the United States have doubled since 1980, but we've built just 4 percent more roads to handle the extra traffic. The Federal Highway Trust Fund is running out of money, but the 18.4¢-per-gallon tax that funds it hasn't gone up since the 1980s. Meanwhile, your tires--and the tires of the trucks carrying new iPhones to malls--are shaking the highways to pieces. So the North Carolina Turnpike Authority wants to put a toll on new highways it plans to construct in Wake County, and instead of saying, "Gosh, a nice new road--and for once at least we know how it will be paid for," people start brandishing pitchforks. If you still haven't had your fill of outrage, ask people for tax money for public transportation.

The Urban Land Institute advises the increased use of direct user fees for roads using wireless transponders that will do everything from automatically paying tolls to actually tracking road use mile by mile, making it possible to charge drivers far more specifically for actual road use. People balk, of course--as they balk at the tiered Internet fees some service providers talk about instituting. Then again, the water and telephone systems mostly started with simple hookup fees and unlimited use; now you have to pay for what you get. And right here in Raleigh the Public Utilities Department plans to institute tiered rates for water use (the more you use, the more each unit costs). Drought or no drought, citizens don't like it.

David Mohler, chief technology officer of Duke Energy, described the complex position of an investor-owned utility: obligated by regulation to provide power to every customer in its territory as cheaply as possible, but obligated as a business to satisfy investors. Now that utilities, which make their living selling power, are supposed to encourage conservation, he said, the problem becomes almost unsolvable. He told me he measures whether people are paying what power ought to cost by the furious calls his company gets when a storm knocks out power. "When the power goes out," he said, "the meter stops turning." So people don't have power, but they're also not paying for it, which would seem like a breakeven situation, but it obviously is not. "What that tells me," he said, "is that people value it much more than they pay for it."

Nobody likes to pay taxes; nobody's looking for more taxes to pay. But everything costs money, from paving roads to regulating power and telephone systems to cleaning and delivering water. I've seen people doing those things, and I like the results of their work. I say let's pay for it.

Reprinted from "On the Grid" by Scott Huler. Copyright (c) 2010 by Scott Huler. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.

This segment aired on July 7, 2011.


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