Time to see through the smoke: Fires, utilities, faulty perception and technical debt

We have an electric power problem. Of course our sustainability problem is bigger and more complex than just electricity. But, as California’s PG&E continues to be in the news (for all the wrong reasons again this year!) with it’s strategic blackouts in response to the latest climate change fueled hellscape, one wonders why we believe the experts when they say our utilities are reliable. Reliability is one of the big reasons why they claim that “alternative” energies just aren’t up to the task.

LA Times: public safety power shut offs

I’ve come across some good writing lately dealing with the dilemma of system change. It would be dishonest (though granted, “truth” seems to be more defined by ideology than by evidence these days) to argue that electricity from PG&E’s grid is reliable. It’s time to see through the “smoke” that shrouds a truth everyone needs to see. What can we learn more broadly from California’s infernos? We’ve got a monopoly utility business model that is putting us all at risk. A World We Built to Burn (by Quinn Norton on emptywheel) is worth reading I think because it gets at some things that deal with understanding where we are in our crisis timeline and how we got there. I’ve adopted the axiom “design designs” (Escobar) as a way of understanding context of such matters. Norton gives us some examples and gives us terminology to describe the consequences of bad design:

None of our old infrastructure was built with planetary management in mind, and very little is even now. What we’re dealing with is hundreds of years of something that software world calls technical debt. Technical debt is the shortcuts and trade-offs engineers use to get something done either cheaper or in less time, which inevitably creates the need to fix systems later, often at great cost or difficulty.

Some technical debt is understood up front, some comes from builders being ignorant of the system they are working in. Most of our planet’s infrastructure is mired in huge amounts of technical debt, most of which we didn’t know we were signing up for at the time, some of which we’re just incurring recklessly as we go along, unable to face the scale of the problem and pushing it off on the next generation.

Norton goes on to describe a fork in the road, a difficult dilemma created by ever-expanding technical debt. The fork is a “trolley problem” in design terminology where moral and strategic problems arise no matter what fork in the road is taken. In our case, it’s primarily because we’ve waited too long; consequences multiply exponentially with delay.

So here we are heavily burdened with technical debt. Norton ticks off a few examples– “Houston is technical debt. New Orleans… Puerto Rico… Jakarta…” Yep, all technical debt. Of course, we can easily add to the list. It doesn’t take a flaming woodland-suburban hellscape to signal that we’re deep in technical debt. Our’s in my hometown of Boone, North Carolina may be different but it’s debt all the same.

Where are we on our debt timeline? It seems like we just keep blowing off that question, piling up more debt. We’d never get on an airliner piloted by a captain who said I’m not concerned about where we are just before programming the flight navigation, right? We don’t abide by that sound logic when it comes to energy.

Here in Boone, the “experts” who have agency and power (pejorative, yes, when they implicitly control the narrative) tell us that we can’t move too quickly on renewable energy yet tell us that we’re making great progress. They tell us we’re leaders and that we can do something in a few years! Being accountable to the truth, however, is a different story. We sign climate resolutions, and… do NOTHING. Self-congratulatory talk and we fall for the greenwash. Critique and truth are unwelcome here among experts. When the natural gas pipeline came to town or when it sought to expand, did anyone notice the connection of that action to our espoused commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? As Norton rightly points out, these aren’t bad people (the rank and file anyway) and so name-calling, though tempting, just won’t help matters. Technical debt in my mind includes public engagement and transparency. When we give away our franchise rights to a natural gas company or an electric utility without being procedurally informed, without first engaging in a critical dialogue that asks “what are we designing here?” that’s a democratic form of technical debt.

I’ll summarize with another great metaphor for our growing technical debt. “You can walk the plank as long as you don’t get to the end of it.” Our high level of technical debt is a clear signal that we’re near it!

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