Computing Applications Inside risks

A Current Affair

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It’s not a revelation that as a society we’re often amiss when it comes to properly prioritizing technological issues. So it should be no surprise that one of the most significant upcoming changes in our physical infrastructure is getting little play not only in the mass media, but in technology-centric circles as well.

There are increasing concerns that many persons in the U.S. are still unaware that virtually all over-the-air analog television signals are slated to cease in February 2009 as part of the conversion to digital TV (although betting against a Congressionally mandated extension at this time might be problematic). Yet it seems that almost nobody is talking about a vastly more far-reaching transition that is looming in our future just 12 years from now.

Hopefully, you realize that I’m talking about the Congressionally ordered Development Initiative for Return to Edison Current Technology (DIRECT) and its core requirement for all public and private power grids in this country to be converted from AC to DC systems by 2020, with all new consumer and business devices using electricity to be capable of operating directly from these new DC power grids without transitional power conversion adapters by no later than 2030.

OK, 2020 may still seem a long way off—2030 even more so. But for changes on such a scale, this is really very little time, and we’d better get cracking now or else we’re likely to be seriously unprepared when the deadlines hit. It’s really too late at this stage to reargue whether or not switching from AC to DC makes sense technologically. Personally, I find the arguments for the conversion to be generally unconvincing and politically motivated.

As you may recall from those purposely late-night hearings on C-SPAN, significant aspects of the conversion have been predicated on anti-immigrant rhetoric. Many of those emotionally loaded discussions focused on the supposed "national shame" of our not using the "rock-solid stable" direct current power system championed by American hero Thomas Edison, and instead standardizing many years ago on an "inherently unstable" alternating current system, developed by an eccentric Croatian immigrant who enthusiastically proposed ideas characterized as grossly un-American—such as free broadcast power.

Similarly, it’s easy to view the associated legislative language as largely a giveaway to the cryogenics industry, which of course stands to profit from the vast numbers of superconducting systems that will be necessary to create large, practical DC grids. Conversion proponents pointed at existing long-distance DC transmission facilities, such as the Pacific DC Intertie, and the success of the conventional telephone system largely operating on DC current. But the Intertie is a highly specialized case, and even the phone system has relied on AC current for telephone ringing purposes.

But this is all water over the spillway. There is a lot of money to be made from this power transition. Stopping it now looks impossible. And admittedly, it’s difficult to argue very convincingly against the ability to do away with device power supplies that are needed now to convert wall current AC into DC, or against the simplicity of DC current when powering future generations of LED bulbs that will presumably replace both incandescents and mercury-laden fluorescents.

It’s also true that much additional employment will be created, at least in the short term. Workers will be needed to install the new DC generating plants, distribution components, and power meters. Also, the many AC transformers hanging on poles and buried in vaults all over the U.S. will need to be bypassed.

Still, from a public-policy standpoint, I’d be lying if I didn’t state outright that, in my opinion, this entire affair is a risky fiasco, from political, economic, and even safety standpoints. For example, because Congress required that the same style wall sockets and plugs be retained for new DC devices as have long been used by existing AC products, we’re sure to see RISKS horror stories galore about damaged equipment, and injured—even killed—consumers, when they run afoul of nasty power confusion accidents.

Freewheeling AC/DC may be great for a rock band, but it’s no way to manage technology. While we can’t unplug this coming mess, we should at least internalize it as an object lesson in how special interests and jingoistic propaganda can distort technology in ways that are counterproductive, dangerous, and even…shocking.

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