How Sustainable Technology Can Repair U.S. Infrastructure

April 2, 2013
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Image via Report Card for America’s infrastructure

Image via Report Card for America’s infrastructure

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers provides a Report Card for America’s infrastructure. This year the United States received a D+. It’s a slight improvement from four years ago, but still pathetic. Our infrastructure—the very thing that more than 315 million people in the United States rely on every day—is crumbling.

That’s the bad news. The good news is in the opportunity this creates to build a better, long-lasting and more sustainable infrastructure that will benefit both the economy and the environment. A nation of smart buildings, high-speed transportation, clean energy, light-speed communications and sustainable architecture are all now within our reach. And the key to this more efficient and productive future is in sustainable technologies.

The 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure includes evaluations of aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, levees, ports, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, transit and wastewater. Since the report’s inception in 1998, every grade in every section from water to roads has been near failing. A consistent lack of investment and maintenance has left our systems in state of decay. This is not hard to see. How many experience more potholes in the roads, traffic jams from outdated stop lights or airport delays from ancient air traffic control systems? How about brownouts and power outages, floods from aged levees and dams or contaminated drinking water from pipes laid in the 19th century?

The Report Card’s constructive criticism can form the basis of a blueprint for modernizing infrastructure with sustainable technology. So much needs reconstructing, and applying sustainable technology and holistic building principals will provide more reliable and long-term solutions. Modernized roads and traffic systems can have a ripple effect on efficiency. Updated communications using fiber optics and wireless technologies will connect rural communities to a global society. There should be solar panels on every inch of roof space, and wind turbines in expired oil fields. Sustainable architecture and building practices for new schools, dams, bridges and waterways will lower our collective carbon footprint. All of this can be done with automated and sustainable technologies—in architecture, energy production, monitoring and automation. Everything will be interconnected and communicating to ensure better stability and efficiency.

What areas need the most work?

Image via Report Card for America’s infrastructure

Image via Report Card for America’s infrastructure

The Energy Problem

Let’s face it: Our country’s electrical grid belongs in the third world. If you disagree, then you did not see the Super Bowl. The Report Card states a massive investment is required to avoid power interruptions and eventual collapse. There is currently waste and instability almost beyond measure. During storms or heavy usage the grid is stressed and goes down, affecting millions. The system is designed for the use of fossil fuels to provide energy and is not yet capable of supporting some of the large investments being made in renewable energies. Most of the large wind and solar farms are in rural areas not connected to the grid.

Solution: An updated smart grid, still very much in development, will handle the increased usage and better incorporate renewables like solar, hydro, geothermal and wind power. Modernizing and automating our grid will allow for better power management, such as that in automated buildings and homes, making all of our appliances and devices more efficient. Some buildings and homes are now being designed and retrofitted with automation systems that control and monitor subsystems, including energy management. This can and should be applied on a national scale, using available technology.

The Water Problem (Pipes, Dams, Waste Management) 

The ASCE report states that most of the dams in the country are over 50 years old, there are 250,000 water main breaks a year, and of the 250 million tons of trash in 2010 only 85 million were recycled or composted (a 34 percent rate).  The report also states there are pipes in the northeastern part of the country from the 1880s. Replacing all the water pipes in the country would cost trillions, but the lack of investment is taking its toll.  With an increased population, diminishing reservoirs and consistent drought conditions, wasting water is not an option.

Solutions: Updating and automating water distribution systems will eliminate waste as water becomes our most precious commodity.  Including sensing and monitoring technologies to track contaminants, eliminate waste and stream line repairs. Refining solid waste recycling will divert materials from the landfill to the factories for raw materials. On a smaller scale, buildings and homes using rainwater and graywater harvesting systems recycle water for use in landscaping and flushing toilets. More efficient pool pumps, automated irrigation systems and hot-water recirculators are other great ideas to help homes and businesses save on their water usage and water bills, while conserving our most precious resource. Let’s also not forget that water and energy production are linked: Much of our water is used to cool power plants, so conserving electricity conserves water, and vice-versa.

The Transportation Problem

Image via Report Card for America’s infrastructure

Image via Report Card for America’s infrastructure

Too many of our roads and bridges are in a state of disrepair. And with population increasing, more people use them every day.  Aviation received a D.  The report says our outdated air traffic control system causes $22 billion a year in delays. How much fuel or how many hours are wasted, affecting the bottom line? Public facilities are also included. Schools and parks built for the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers are crumbling as well.

Solution: Transportation systems could be updated to include high-speed rail, automated traffic systems, pressure sensors on bridges, and readily available plug in stations for hybrid electric vehicles.  Updating air traffic systems with modern technology can automate and streamline the process. Updates are desperately needed in thousands of buildings and locations that could also be tied into an automated society. Big Data and data analytics can be used to analyze how roadways are used and when, and redesign them with the most efficient investments. Government buildings can become more energy-efficient through private-sector ESPCs (Energy Savings Performance Contracts) that pay back long-term loans for efficiency upgrades through the energy savings.

The Digital Deal

In the last 100 years there have been two major investments and overhauls to our country’s infrastructure. We now have the technology to invest in modern, digital versions of the New Deal and Great Society. Yet taxpayers do not have to foot the entire bill.  The 21st century also allows a much larger contribution from the private sector, due to the resources in businesses within local communities. The long-term effect will be different from the past as well.

Make no mistake: The cost of modernizing and updating our infrastructure will cost trillions of dollars and take decades to complete. A large number of our bridges, roads, dams and lights have to be replaced. But the innovations that will result from rebuilding a sustainable society will have a huge, positive impact on our economy and the environment.

Automating and maintaining the new infrastructure will create high-tech green-collar jobs.  Opportunities will abound for businesses and entrepreneurs, from the design process through building and construction. There will also be opportunities for the unemployed and returning veterans. The result will be a modernized United States with a sustainable infrastructure equal to its stature.

Redesigning and modernizing our infrastructure to be sustainable is more than just updating roads and dams. It will revive our economy and our environment. It will make our infrastructure more resilient to climate change and population growth. It will have a ripple effect that will shift the paradigm of our society and set an example to the world that we still possess the gift of innovation.

Tommy Kissell is the owner/president of sustainable electronics integrator Eco High Fidelity of Carrollton, Texas, and a regular contributor to GreenTech Advocates. See some of his company’s cool installs in the links below.

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