May 10, 2019

Axios Future

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1 big thing: Battling the next power disaster

California's deadly Camp Fire. Photo: Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/Mercury News/Getty

After decades of neglect, U.S. infrastructure is cracking, sagging, and exploding — and pressure on old systems is growing as cities swell and the climate changes.

Kaveh reports: Now, utility companies, fearful of setting off more disasters like California's deadly wildfires, are hungrily buying up AI systems that can tell them which equipment is the next to rupture or go up in flames.

  • California's three largest utility companies caused more than 2,000 fires in an approximately 3-year span, the L.A. Times reported in January. And gas-line explosions have killed hundreds and injured nearly a thousand people in the past 2 decades.
  • The ordinarily conservative utilities are throwing everything they can into reducing these risks, says Otto Lynch, an adviser to the Infrastructure Report Card, a study of U.S. infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers. "You do not want to be the person responsible for taking down New York City."

What's happening: A spate of new startups selling AI systems to predict oncoming equipment problems have found utilities eager customers.

  • A company called Via uses data from power company equipment inspections, smart meters, and environmental factors to figure out if transformers are at risk of disaster.
  • Urbint looks at previous gas problems, plus satellite imagery, soil and weather data, and planned digs near gas lines to map danger zones.
  • Petasense supplies Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, California, with sensors that can detect malfunctions in power-generating equipment from minute changes in their vibration.

The big picture: A confluence of 21st century shifts is endangering critical infrastructure.

  • Extreme weather is increasingly frequent, with high winds bringing power outages, and soggy soil causing pipe corrosion and leaks.
  • Fast-growing cities mean old infrastructure suddenly has to serve far more people than it was designed to — and the construction booms rattle underground systems out of place.
  • Electric cars and home solar panels are putting tremendous stress on transformers that weren't built for the load.

Meanwhile, utility companies that need more employees to deal with this new reality are instead in danger of losing a quarter of their workforce to retirement in the next 5 years — along with their decades of accumulated knowledge.

Without a drastic intervention, the U.S. is set for a lot more California-scale disasters — or, where conditions are not as tinderbox-like, for massive outages, says Lynch. His infrastructure report card gave the energy sector a D+ in its most recent issue.

  • For a company the size of California's PG&E, with many thousands of transformers scattered through an enormous area, "there literally aren't enough people to physically inspect equipment enough," says Via cofounder Colin Gounden.
  • They want to know: "How do I figure out what the highest risk factor are?"
  • The penalty for neglect is stark. The PG&E tower that likely started the lethal Camp Fire last year was 99 years old — nearly a quarter-century past its "useful life."

But, but, but: Fancy analytics alone won't solve the energy sector's looming crisis. The American Society of Civil Engineers said in 2017 that the energy sector needs $177 billion in extra funding to get through the coming decade.

2. The urgency of digital skill training

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The new age of automation will push thousands of people out of work across advanced economies, but only a few countries are well-cushioned against the hit, according to a new report.

  • 1 of 8 American workers and 1 of 7 Europeans are highly vulnerable to automation and require retraining, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  • The U.S. is well positioned in terms of the opportunity for workers to obtain new skills and retrain.
  • But, compared with other advanced economies, Americans are currently only somewhat prepared for a time when digital skills will be paramount.

To thrive in the new economy, workers must be immersed in the technologies around them, from using email and smartphones to learning something about coding, the report says. “It is urgent for countries to focus on building the skills of workers whose jobs are at high risk of automation.”

  • Countries that are already doing this are mainly in northern Europe — Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.
  • Those that are least prepared include Chile, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and Turkey.
  • The U.S. is more or less in the middle, the OECD says.
3. Mailbox: Faux tradition

The Impossible Burger (left) and Cali Burger. Photo: Richard Drew/AP

Readers had a lot to say about yesterday's post on the future of the American hamburger. One email came from Skip Brooks of Tuscaloosa, Alabama:

Prior to the mid-1940s, Americans ate a basically decent diet. Rural folks ate food and beef they grew. City folks ate local foods from local groceries. After the 2nd World War, the meat industry put forth the idea of meat at every meal. If you were successful, you ate meat at breakfast, lunch, dinner. By the late '50s, burgers and fried food combined to make sure internal cancers, heart disease, and strokes took off.
Human plumbing is not built to process the massive amounts of meat Americans eat. Add to that the environmental realities of so much methane being produced by animals bred for eating and you have a modern science disaster.
4. Worthy of your time

Artist's illustration of two black holes. Photo: LIGO/Caltech/MIT/Sonoma State

Cybersecurity job, no experience required (Kelsey Gee - WSJ)

Follow gravitational waves as they are detected (Miriam Kramer - Axios)

Victor Orban's war on intellect (Frank Foer - The Atlantic)

The vanishing of Beijing's long-eared owls (Wang Yiwei - Sixth Tone)

The dramatic U.S. manufacturing slowdown (John Kemp - Reuters)

5. 1 out-of-this-world thing: Bezos' vision for space

Bezos in front of his Blue Moon. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

As Jeff Bezos today unveiled Blue Moon, Blue Origin's new moon lander, he clued the audience in on his extraterrestrial ambitions.

The big picture: Bezos — like other space entrepreneurs — believes humans will have to move to space at some point in the future as Earth becomes overcrowded. While 7.6 billion humans are already draining Earth's resources, outer space could support a trillion of us, he says. "Then we'd have 1,000 Mozarts and 1,000 Einsteins. Think how incredible and dynamic that civilization will be."

  • But attempting to colonize Mars is silly, he said. Instead, he envisions colonies within pods that mimic Earth and are big enough to host a million people. Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neil made a similar proposal in 1974.

Go deeper: Jeff Bezos unveils Blue Origin’s plan to land on the moon (Axios)