Explosions in the sky

Former colleague Than Tibbetts tweeted a video the other day showing a series of transformer explosions following a lightning strike near Fort Worth, Texas.

It’s fascinating to watch. I’m waiting for someone to make a version with the “Close Encounters” music dubbed underneath.

But to date, the video has (rightfully) generated very little hysteria over the reliability of the electric grid, which means it’s an opportunity for me to play one of my favorite games, “Imagine the Outrage if this were Renewable Energy Failing.”

For instance, in the past, I’ve noted that people tend to freak out at the prospect of electric cars catching on fire, while regular cars burst into flames all the time without much fanfare.

Then there were the coal power plants that froze up in Texas, which didn’t generate nearly as much outrage as a handful of wind turbines failing during a cold snap in Minnesota.

So now, go back and watch the video and imagine those are solar panels exploding. Or wind-farm storage batteries. Knocking out power to thousands of homes.

Can you imagine the holy hell that would break loose in the media over it?

Transformers, of course, don’t care where the energy comes from (although, if these had been connected to a wind farm, you can bet we’d have heard about it by now). The point is that we hold different standards for technology based on our level of familiarity.

We see electrical transformers all the time, and realize that, while they do explode from time to time, it’s pretty rare. Similarly, we’ve stopped worrying about getting cancer from microwave ovens or cell phones, as they’ve become ubiquitous.

But with new technology, we don’t always have an intuitive basis for understanding whether a failure is a rarity or a common occurrence. So when the new, strange thing freezes, explodes or catches on fire, it gets our attention. I’m sure there’s some evolutionary explanation for it.

All technology fails eventually. What matters are the consequences.

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