Most people don’t dispute that our electricity and water systems could be made far more efficient and modern, which explains why the smart-grid industry has taken off so quickly in the past year or so. But why is our infrastructure inefficient? More and more, the answer to that seems to be coloured by one’s political beliefs.
Are transmission and distribution systems increasingly failing because they’re old, and because electricity and carbon prices have failed to reflect the true cost of reliable energy? Or have power company managers merely been making bad decisions? Do water utilities lose a lot of their product to leaks in underground pipes because they’ve been wasting money elsewhere and not spending enough on maintenance and repairs? Or is it because water, like energy, is something we’ve all long taken for granted and overused/underpriced?
These are questions you can bet you’ll be hearing more as cities, boroughs, states and entire countries try to figure out how to keep the lights on and the water running without going deeply into debt or pricing some consumers out of the market entirely. And the prevailing answers have been changing as governments shift from stimulus spending aimed desperately at keeping economies from collapse to austerity measures aimed equally urgently at cutting steep national deficits.
Consider these remarks from the president of a Pennsylvania water utility. Speaking this week at the 2011 Pennsylvania Infrastructure Summit, Pennsylvania American Water President Kathy L. Pape asserted:
“Looking to Washington or Harrisburg for a financial bailout is not the answer. The reality is that many communities are faced with tough decisions when it comes to investing limited dollars. Unfortunately, too many systems’ capital needs have been neglected over time, unless a federal or state grant is provided … We need to change this cycle of rewarding inefficiency, which leads to bad management practices. Government grants typically give higher priority to systems under consent orders for noncompliance with environmental regulations, thereby rewarding poor performance.”
Pape noted that President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget slashes approximately $1 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) infrastructure funding. According to the EPA, the nation’s water utilities need $335 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years to replace ageing water infrastructure and comply with stricter water quality standards.
Her comments beg the question: Do government grants really “reward inefficiency? Or have they been the only thing preventing the nation’s water infrastructure from complete collapse? Furthermore, couldn’t one argue that party politics are one of the reasons that proposed infrastructure spending has been cut, rather than historically low taxes on the wealthy being raised to ensure adequate funding?
Make no mistake, however development of our energy and water infrastructure proceeds from here, the forces driving it will be anything but apolitical. Technology alone won’t determine the outcome.