The Basics of Infrastructure

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It's in vogue these days, infrastructure that is. Everyone is talking about it. Pronounced in-fruh-struhk-cher, it's phonetically brilliant. But do you know what it really means? With regard to sustainability, infrastructure is at the core of society's attempt and struggle to live in harmony with nature. When you talk about energy, you are actually talking about infrastructure. The same is true for architecture, food, computers and water. If humanity isn't able to get it together and finds itself disappearing -the blame should be put squarely on infrastructure...and the men and women responsible for designing, buildings and ultimately using it. Despite its importance, many people have vague notions as to what the word means. Over the last few weeks, I've produced a few posts about different components of infrastructure, and now realize that maybe we should take a step back, discuss the general topic a bit more, and cover some essential points before diving deeper into the reasons such innovations as smart grids, electric cars and clean energy may or may not be as sustainable as promised.

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If you aren't sure what infrastructure is, you are not alone. Most people don't. Pundits that proclaim its virtue or lament its miserable state do not explained it very well or at all in most cases. Several recent visits to my local Barnes & Noble and Borders in search of an infrastructure section came up empty, though the retailers had shelves dedicated to romance, self-help and, even, art history. One reason infrastructure is difficult to understand is that it is complex and gets highly technical quickly.

The Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines it in three ways:
1: the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)
2: the permanent installations required for military purposes
3: the system of public works of a country, state, or region; also: the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity

For the purpose of sustainability, the first and third definition is the most important. The foundation of modern society is based on such things as the electric grid, waterworks and telecommunications as well as agriculture, economics and even meteorology. Each of these categories is organized into a public work, utility or corporation so that they can provide us a service. Without them, we would not be able to use our smart phones, depend on an abundance of food at the grocery store or even expect to have indoor toilets. These multi-systems form the backbone of what infrastructure is within America and other countries.

Hard and Soft
Infrastructure is divided into two major classifications: hard and soft. Hard infrastructure refers to physical facilities and/or installations needed to operate, manage and monitor a system with the intention that the structures to be permanent. For example, when power lines or communication towers are built, the goal is for them to stay in place indefinitely. Others include railways, levees, dams, roads and satellites. Soft infrastructure is more about institutions that maintain standards of a culture such as health, law enforcement, emergency services and education. Both hard and soft are essential for progress and discovery of a nation.

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The chief groups of hard infrastructure looks something like this: transportation systems deal with roads, railways and airports. Water management is another large category that includes sewers, drinking water and flood control. Energy systems primarily include the processing and transmission of energy and energy sources, such as electrical networks and oil and natural gas pipelines. Communications systems include television stations, communications satellites, telephone networks and the Internet. Solid waste management focuses on landfills, incinerators, and garbage and recycling collections. There are less familiar systems such as earth monitoring networks (which includes meteorological and seismometer monitoring) that go relatively unnoticed, but serve important daily roles in everyone's life. When all is running smoothly, you don't even notice how much you need it. However, unusual disruptions such as blackouts or terrorist attacks abruptly remind us of how dependent we all are on these systems when suddenly a city goes dark. Even small interruption such as highway construction making a commute to work longer or when you can't connect to the internet reveals our dependence.

Energy as Infrastructure
Energy is a fundamental aspect of civilization and we are able to use it because of the large scale underpinning of the electric grid, or simply grid. The grid is made of millions of miles of wires, transmission lines and conduit along with power plants, mines and other components that crisscross the continent and tie Canada, the US and Mexico together. All of it is designed to get you fast and reliable energy that's needed for everything from air conditioners to alarm clocks to traffic lights. Every moment of our lives is a continual interaction with appliances, machines, tools and equipment that need power, so we need lots and lots of energy along with lots of the components that allow us to use it. The same can be said for water. When you walk into your kitchen to turn on a faucet or to wash your hands, you are depending on vast networks of pipes, dams, reservoirs and channels that make up a regional-wide system of waterworks. This water infrastructure is just as fundamental as energy, and is considered the framework or foundation of our lives.

History of Networks
Ever since humans have gathered to form villages, towns and cities, they have also come together to provide mutual safety, transportation and other support systems for their daily lives. Ancient civilizations had sewers, water systems, transportation networks and local militaries organized to deal with the problems of not having these things. The Romans built massive aqueducts to bring clean water from miles away into city centers for bathhouses, drinking, hygiene and fountains. Native peoples in the southwest of the United States built water systems to grow crops. Both communities also had systems that allowed them to persist such as food networks, markets, economics, government and architecture. All of these systems are examples of human infrastructure, and are essential elements of society today.

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Photo Credit: Kevin Krejci/creative commons
Most People Say
The conversation about infrastructure always focuses on how hard infrastructure is deteriorating, and that massive amounts of federal dollars are necessary to make up for the shortfall. Many argue that if more stimulus money goes toward construction projects more jobs will be created. Sustainability advocates say if we create smart grids, electric cars and nuclear power, we can reduce our environmental impact by improving our existing system. However, neither questions infrastructure as it stands.

A fundamental aspect of infrastructure is that it attempts to do for humans what nature cannot. Natural systems such as rain or rivers are the premiere way water gets to a locality. When a population outgrows native sources, utilities step into deliver H2O from farther away to satisfy demand. Places like Las Vegas, Nevada and Phoenix, Arizona are experience shortages as the number of people continue to grow even though they have enormous public works supplying water. Many other cities are projected to have shortages in the coming years. Some believe the solution is the build more pipes to bring more water from even greater distances as well as to develop better monitoring systems to reduce leaks within the network of pipes and tunnels. Conservation programs are enforced along with higher prices to reduce consumption. All the while, the population continues to expand thereby outstretching both natural and human systems.

Existing versus Something Else
Making existing systems more efficient overlooks the question of whether or not the existing system is the best practice and doesn't confronts what is right in front of us. For example, can you even have a green Vegas? Should millions of people be living in the middle of a desert? Before modern infrastructure or European settlers only a few thousand people could survive in these arid places.

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The same questions need to be asked about electric cars. If we no longer use foreign oil, and begin using grid source electricity for automobiles, will we be better off as a country? It seems that electric cars will only make us more dependent on infrastructure, and force us to upgrade to smart grids. Smart grids are an additional layer and cost to existing systems. America hasn't been able to pay for what it has, so why are so many within the green community trying to get us to go more in debt? Smart grids have become the defacto solution for energy consumption promising that an army of monitors and meters along with batteries and better transmission systems will make things better. The history of the electric grid says otherwise. First came the electric light bulb, then appliances and equipment that needed electricity, then came the grid to provide the service. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog. It was all built when neither fuel or climate change was an issue, nor did anyone know the impact it would have on biodiversity or humans.

A Society that Gives Back
Infrastructure is always going to be part of society. Even a ultra-smart grid with only renewable energy sources would have tremendous ecological impacts. In essence, the biggest problem with infrastructure is that it is geared to only take from nature. To really have solutions that can be long lasting and less expensive, we must redesign it to give back to the natural world, and allow us to live within nature in a way that magnifies ecology and society.

More on Infrastructure
Six Infrastructure Projects to Save 1.3 Billion Gallons of Water in Australia
Smart Grids are a Dumb Idea
The Path to Lithium Batteries: Friend or Foe?
If We Build High Speed Rail, Will People Use It?

The Basics of Infrastructure
It's in vogue these days, infrastructure that is. Everyone is talking about it. Pronounced in-fruh-struhk-cher, it's phonetically brilliant. But do you know what it really means? With regard to sustainability,

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