The grid debate: Decentralize or expand infrastructure
Two authors debate whether we should move away from centralized power, water and other utilities or invest more in them.
Story from Living on Earth. Listen to audio above for full report.
It's easy to take our electric grid for granted, and the pipes that provide our water as a given. You flick on a switch and the light comes on. Turn on the tap, clean water. At least, that's what's supposed to happen.
But pipes and power lines are vulnerable to age and attack from nature and terrorists. Two books that examine the infrastructure of the United States are "On the Grid," by Scott Huler, and Nick Rosen's "Off the Grid."
On Living on Earth, the two authors shared pros and cons of decentralizing utilities versus staying plugged in and working to improve the system. Below is a transcript of their debate, refereed by host Steve Curwood:
CURWOOD: So I'm looking at your book Nick Rosen, yes the title is, "Off The Grid," but also it says, "Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America." In brief, what is your book about?
ROSEN: Well literally, "off-grid" means living without utilities, but also has a metaphorical meaning, which is living kind of outside the system, or half-in and half-out of the system. And so going off the grid is something that more and more people are doing because it's getting easier. The technology is allowing it -- the low energy fridges, the more efficient solar panels -- and the fact that it's becoming more acceptable and you're allowed to "tele-work," you know, be on the internet in the boonies. And so people are exercising this freedom, some of them are.
CURWOOD: And Scott Huler your book is called "On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work." Tell me in brief, what is your book about?
HULER: My book is about all of the systems that the people in Nick's book want to do without. My book starts from my house and looks up and says, 'look at all these things sticking out of my house, these wires, and these tubes, and these pipes -- where do they go and how do they work,' and it asks questions like, okay we had a drought here in Raleigh, a drought of biblical proportions where it just stopped raining for months and in the middle, at the worst part of that drought, when we were almost out of water, you could turn on your tap and brush your teeth for 20 minutes, with the water running while you were humming Mozart and you would never run out of water. And it asks questions like, 'how on earth is that possible? How could it be that that happens and you flush your toilet and you never have to think for five minutes about what happens to that stuff, and how can that be,' and is that a good thing or is that a bad thing, and above all just how does it work and how did we get to this place and what next.
ROSEN: I have a small quibble with that. Living off-grid doesn't mean doing without electricity and water -- it means providing your own electricity and water. And a lot of people would say, 'well why on earth would I want to do that?' But there are quite a few people who think they can answer that question. They say they want to do that because of the ever-increasing price of electricity, or because they don't trust the system to deliver them electricity and clean water and the other things that we traditionally rely upon the state to provide. And they've come to distrust the state and authority and the financial system and they just want to provide for themselves. It's not so much self-sufficiency, although for many that is a factor, it's self-reliance.
HULER: I am in favor of all kinds of, sort of, adjunct technology and technology that frees you from paying companies who you don't trust or anything like that. If you want to generate your own power I'm in favor of that. If you want to clean your own water rather than using municipal water I'm in favor of that too. But no matter how easy the systems get and how great the systems get, I think it's still going to be a lot more trouble for each person to do it than to do it as a group. And yes as you pointed out, Steve, in Boston you had that shocking water main break. The collar they put on that water main was seven years old! It's unspeakable that something like that should be breaking. And that demonstrates how bad we are getting at paying the taxes to take care of these systems that take care of us. But I much more strongly trust a municipal water system and the people who run it and who have degrees in running that, then I would trust my neighbors to take good enough care of their sewage so that my water, if it was coming from a well wasn't fouled and ...
ROSEN: Well you say you trust the municipal water authorities but the fact is, as I describe in my book, Associated Press did a survey of most of the major municipal water systems and they found that the water was polluted with all sorts of drugs that have passed through the human body and then not been taken out by the filters. So actually I think that trust is a bit misplaced. And I’m not saying we should all stop drinking the tap water immediately, but what I am saying is that I can completely understand somebody who wants to provide their own water.
Read the rest of this transcript on The Living on Earth website.
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."