Street Smarts

Repairing roofs, roads, bridges and our electrical grid would give the economy a kick-start. But only if we do it wisely

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Photograph by Brad Temkin for TIME

The view from the green roof atop the Kensington Creative and Performing arts High School in Philadelphia, September 16, 2011.

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So far, the new digital smart meters have been a political dud, partly because of unfounded fears about radiation and inaccuracy and partly because they can't provide much useful information until consumers buy slick in-home displays and state regulators let utilities vary electricity rates to lower prices at times of peak demand. But the less visible elements of the smart grid — sensors, routers and other Buck Rogers — style gadgetry — are already providing benefits behind the scenes. Utilities no longer have to send meter readers to homes every month or deploy battalions of trucks to troubleshoot entire neighborhoods when someone reports a problem.

And the new gizmos are helping the grid monitor and heal itself. In January, for example, millions of Americans watched Stanford's football team win the Orange Bowl. None of them knew that an aging transformer nearly overloaded while feeding power to the stadium, triggering voltage alerts that gave new meaning to the phrase red zone. Thanks to high-tech equipment installed through a $200 million smart-grid grant to Florida Power & Light, transformers that used to be checked manually once a year were being monitored electronically every second. The new equipment detected the problem and diverted power elsewhere. "It would've been embarrassing if the stadium had gone dark," says Bob Triana, the operations manager for FPL's Energy Smart Florida project. "I mean, it might not have gotten to that point. But I'm glad we didn't find out."

Smart building, whether of a more efficient water-management system or a smarter grid or a better transportation network, depends on three principles. First, reduce demand. Philly's strategy of decreasing the volume of storm water that its sewers need to manage instead of building capacity can apply well beyond sewers. Most people don't think of electricity conservation as related to infrastructure, but every "negawatt" saved through efficiency mandates for buildings and appliances that waste less energy is a megawatt from a new coal-fired power plant that doesn't have to be built. The same logic applies to strategies that reduce driving, water use and trash; think nega-roads, nega-reservoirs and nega-dumps.

Second, look for creative solutions over concrete. In coastal Louisiana, where a football field's worth of wetland vanishes every hour, the flood walls that had wetlands in front of them survived Hurricane Katrina without a problem, while flood walls left exposed by erosion collapsed and drowned New Orleans. But lawmakers still push costly new levee projects that could destroy more wetlands and endanger more lives while a massive wetland-restoration effort continues to languish. The ASCE estimates that it would cost $12 billion to repair America's 4,000 structurally deficient dams. It may make more sense to instead remove them, restoring rivers, fisheries and recreational opportunities that do more for the economy than the dams ever did. More than 800 dams have already been dismantled in the U.S. A 210-ft.-tall dam on Washington's Elwha River, scheduled for demolition this fall, will be the largest to go.

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