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 Infrastructure
 

 




An infrastructure is a system we have built that allows us to move items from one place to another. Take roads for example. The U.S. has an excellent transportation infrastructure. You can drive all the way across the country on paved roads. These roads have gas stations along them that allow you to keep your car powered. Most of these roads are in good condition. Your car doesn't bump around and break apart.

Energy is dependent on many different systems along its journey from its source to its end product. To use energy, we must first locate a source and then move it to where it can do something for us. We will look at the infrastructures that each of our four uses depend on. Look for the overlap the areas where the same infrastructure is relied on for more than one use.

Electricity's Infrastructure | Aging Electrical Grid | Heating's Infrastructure
Manufacturing's Infrastructure | Transportation's Infrastructure
Problems within the Infrastructure |
A New Infrastructure for Newer Fuels | Sources

Electricity's Infrastructure
Electricity is used by everyone across the U.S. Electricity travels from a power station to the power distribution grid. The grid is a network of electrical towers, transformers, substations, and electrical lines that link the utility companies up to buildings. There are several grids that cover the U.S. Some grids are quite large, while others cover smaller areas. Some people aren't hooked up an electrical grid. People who are "off the grid" have many different reasons for doing so. Sometimes they can't afford the cost of running electrical lines out to their homes. Sometimes they enjoy the solitude of not using electrical appliances. Others produce their own energy using solar, wind, or hydroelectric power.

Let's follow a typical electricity user. We'll look at electricity produced from wind as it travels from a wind farm in California to an alarm clock in San Francisco.

Thousands of windmills are set up in a windy valley north of San Francisco. The winds here generate enough electricity to power the whole city of San Francisco. It just happens to be a very windy day and the wind turbines are spinning. As the blades spin and turn the turbine, the turbine runs a generator, which produces electricity. This electricity is sent out over the grid through a series of electrical lines and towers. Eventually it makes its way to a substation where the high voltage power is changed into a low voltage that can be used in houses. Finally, the electricity finds its way to the outlet of an alarm clock.

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Aging Electrical Grid
A very real problem for the U.S. is the aging of the electrical power grid. Every year, Americans continue to use more and more electricity. This means that utility companies need to produce more electricity for us. But we haven't built more power lines to handle the increased load. Not only that, but the lines we do have can barely handle the electricity we force them to transmit right now. The electrical grid spans the entire continental United States (Hawaii and Alaska each have their own separate grids). But the grid wasn't designed to work as one unit, moving electricity back and forth across the country. Think of the grid as regional; electricity can move from one region to another. California can buy power from Oregon and Washington, but probably not Maine. By the time the electricity moved through all the transmission lines, it would have used quite a bit of itself up just traveling across the country.

Blackouts and brownouts are another problem with the aging electrical grid. A blackout occurs when an entire region loses power completely. A brownout is a partial loss of power. When the grid collapses in one small area, cities and even states can lose power. California dealt with this problem by having mandatory blackouts. No one was without electricity for more than one hour. Still, businesses lost millions of dollars during those one hour blackouts. And several computer-related industries decided to move to other states where electricity was available consistantly.

Heating's Infrastructure
Since you know how energy is used for heating, think about how we are able to get the heat we need. Let's start with energy to heat our homes. Our destination is the furnace of an apartment building in Iowa and an oven in the Quad Cities. Both appliances run on natural gas. How do we get the natural gas from the ground to the furnace and oven?

A drill in the northern Texas panhandle produces natural gas. That gas is piped across Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and then into Iowa. In Iowa it is stored by energy distributors who sell it to local utility companies in Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan. A utility company in Iowa purchases some natural gas for its customers. In Iowa, a cold front has caused the temperature to dip to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The manager of the apartment turns on the furnace and natural gas moves through pipelines to the furnace in the apartment basement. The heat kicks on. Meanwhile in Illinois, a very hungry seventh grader decides to make a grilled cheese sandwich. He slaps some cheese between two buttered pieces of bread and sets a frying pan on the stove. He turns the knob on the stove and natural gas flows through pipes to his oven and is ignited by a flame. His sandwich's cheese is already starting to melt.

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Manufacturing's Infrastructure
How would a large manufacturer of iron construction beams get the energy it needs? Let's follow coal from the ground to an ironwork in Indiana.

In Kentucky, a company of miners begin work. They go underground and start digging coal out of the ground. It moves along conveyer belts until it reaches the surface. Then it moves into railcars and is shipped out. By rail, the coal travels to an Indiana ironworks. Coal is added to a huge furnace that is used to heat iron until it is molten (liquid metal). The metal is then poured into steel beam forms until it cools down and can be sent to construction sites around the country.

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Transportation's Infrastructure
Millions of cars and trucks are on the road everyday. Let's follow petroleum from the ancient seabed floor to a car tank in the mountains of Colorado.

In Kuwait, an oil field is producing petroleum oil. The oil is piped over the desert to the Persian Gulf. From the gulf, it is loaded into oil tankers and travels through the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic Ocean. The ship makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico and is sent to a refinery in Louisiana. The refinery produces gasoline from the petroleum and puts the gasoline in trailer trucks and sends it to a gas company storage facility in Texas. The Texas company creates the gas blends that are required by different states, including the detergent additives its company is known for. The gasoline is then put on a semi and hauled up the mountains to Denver, Colorado. In Denver, the gas is put into an underground storage tank at a gas station. Shortly, a SUV that gets 18 miles per gallon fills up with 25 gallons and drives off.

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What do you think?
How many gas stations are in your community? Do you have to travel far to get gasoline?

Problems within the Infrastructure
Infrastructure is expensive to develop. Think about the highways and roads around us. Billions and billions of dollars were spent on those. What if all of the roads started to break down at once? That would be a huge mess. Oil and gas pipelines have other problems. In 2001, a man in Alaska was arrested for shooting a bullet into a oil pipeline. (The pipelines run above ground in Alaska.) He caused an oil spill in the surrounding environment. Natural gas pipelines have their own problems. Unless people take the time to check with utility companies before they dig, gas pipelines can be ruptured by construction workers or a careless shovel. The consequences are dangerous.

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A New Infrastructure for Newer Fuels
Raw materials, like natural gas, petroleum oil, and coal, have to be sent through an infrastructure of roads, pipes, or gas lines. Then, if electricity is involved, the power distribution grid sends electricity from the power companies to the buildings where it is needed. As we develop new energy supplies, our infrastructure has to change to accommodate them. What do you think we need to do with the energy infrastructure?

Check it out!
New fuel sources have their own infrastructure problems. For example, fuel cells require hydrogen. There are no "hydrogen stations." This is an issue because fuel cells are on their way to a car near you. Read about how fuel cells might change the future of transportation (at least for cars and trucks).


Sources
Dye, Lee. "More Fuel, Less Pollution: Efficient New Cells Seen in the Future." ABC News Online. www.abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/DyeHard/dyehard010927.html. September 27, 2001.

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Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAP)
This pipeline winds over 800 miles from an oilfield in northern Alaska to Valdez. More

PBS NewsHour Online Links
The California energy crisis happened because of a lot of factors, including infrastructure. Take a closer look at California's problem and see how it might predict what happens across America.It seems that no one wants a power plant in his backyard, including California, a state that needs to figure out how to get more power NOW!