Rising heat and climate extremes mean questions, challenges for roads, power grid and other infrastructure

Bryce Gray, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Business News

The region's increasingly frequent major floods add to roadway woes, deteriorating asphalt and eroding support materials underneath, according to MoDOT -- which, earlier this year, faced at least $30 million in unexpected damage from high water in the state. The same episodes can increase risk for bridges, by scouring away sediment from around their support structures, Abkowitz said.

Bridges are another place where heat-related complications can arise, with road joints that expand and contract. The joints are designed to wiggle with traffic, wind and weather. And occasionally all of that wiggle leads them to wear out. Temperature extremes mean they could wiggle more and wear out faster.

The heat can hurt the electric grid, too. When historic heat and drought gripped the Midwest in 2012, one power plant shut down because it couldn't access cooling water. Water levels had dropped below the plant's intake pipe, according to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, tasked with managing the electric grid around St. Louis and across parts of 15 states. Multiple plants had to ramp down production that year because cooling water was too warm, according to a report in the New York Times. St. Louis power company Ameren said it had not run into similar issues.

Clogged pipes

Flooding can also complicate operations for riverfront power generating facilities. Amid the region's major floods earlier this year, one Missouri plant had flood debris clog its intake pipe, according to John Grotzinger, the vice president of engineering operations and power supply for the Missouri Public Utility Alliance. Grotzinger didn't identify the plant.

When floodwater was near its apex in early June, the industrial plant that runs a "steam loop" to supply heat and hot water to many downtown St. Louis buildings and hotels was overwhelmed by 10 to 12 feet of water, after a Mississippi River pump station failed. The system's ensuing shutdown came at a highly inopportune time, right as the Stanley Cup Final came to the city, and sparked a desperate scramble to bring in temporary boilers from as far as Chicago, Indianapolis and Minnesota. The substitute boilers served a dozen buildings, including major hotels, a city jail, and parts of Busch Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals hosted a weekend series with the Chicago Cubs.

Experts say all of these events are just hints at what might come.


Some are working to prepare. Ameren, for instance, is installing 12,000 new utility poles -- "many fortified with composite materials to better withstand severe weather." It is also adding 400 miles of new cable underground.

Others worry governments and utilities aren't investing in maintenance, and won't adapt fast enough to climate change. And there are immense technical challenges, like the absence of historical precedents, as engineers design things for a more unpredictable, extreme climate.

"There's no question that the folks that construct and maintain our infrastructure are not keeping up with, in my opinion, the practices that they need to consider, going forward," said Abkowitz. "A lot of the design and construction that's going on is sort of based on knowledge that we've accumulated up to this point in time."

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