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Source of New York Steam Blast Is a Literal Mystery

Steam power is a technology whose time may have come and gone

5 min read

Remember the opening of the movie Taxi Driver ? In that iconic montage, cabbie Travis Bickle motors through the slick streets of New York City immersed in clouds of swirling steam rising from seemingly nowhere.

In the aftermath of the gigantic steam-pipe blast in midtown Manhattan last month, many have wondered what on earth such pipes are still doing under the streets of the big city. This is the Wireless Age, isn’t it, so why are conduits from the Steam Age still operating underground? Indeed, while most New Yorkers know that the city uses steam for something, they have little idea what that something is. Heating maybe? And visitors to the Big Apple are left in an even greater state of confusion. Locals have often smirked as concerned tourists, who have stopped to sniff the wisps of gas emanating from drain gratings, earnestly proclaimed to their friends, ”It’s okay; it’s only steam.”

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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