The Toxic Bubble of Technical Debt Threatening America

Climate change will soon expose a crippling problem embedded in the nation’s infrastructure. In fire-ravaged California, it already has.

The wind-driven Kincade Fire burns near the town of Healdsburg, California.

The wind-driven Kincade Fire burns near the town of Healdsburg, California. STEPHEN LAM / REUTERS

In Northern California, the fires have come again, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing by mandate. They’ve been aided by a historic wind event that a forecaster told me was “off the charts,” with offshore winds showing up as six standard deviations away from normal in National Weather Service models. On Sunday, the wind gusted to 100 miles an hour on a mountaintop near the Kincade Fire. It was like a dry hurricane, and the satellite images showed the fire pushing and expanding in response. The fire might keep growing for days more, maybe even a week.

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company, better known as PG&E, has a well-documented history of neglecting the maintenance of its equipment, and as with last year’s deadly Camp Fire, early reports suggest that the company’s lines could have started the Kincade Fire too. Even so, hundreds of thousands of residents have had their power shut off to try to prevent fires from starting.

PG&E makes for an easy villain, or “a steaming pile of terrible management and debt.” The Wall Street Journal reported that the company paid out executives and shareholders while foregoing important systemic upgrades. (The Journal’s editorial board, however, blamed Sacramento’s policies of supporting solar installations, which could have pulled the focus away from grid maintenance.)

And sure, let accountability fall on PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission, and whomever else. The problem is far, far deeper though, and it extends way beyond the local situation.
A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books. SOURCE
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