Field of Science

The U.S. enters the 20th century (or: why our electrical grid is a failure)


No, the title of this article is not a typo.  We did enter the 20th century - the early 20th century - last week.  All it took was a thunderstorm.


Sometimes I am struck by how phenomenally shortsighted our national leaders are.  In just 45 minutes last week, a single storm brought the capital of the U.S. to its knees for nearly a week.  Millions of people were left in the dark, with no power, no telephones, no internet, and no air-conditioning during the worst heat wave in years.  The damaged stretched from Ohio east into Maryland and Virginia.  A national emergency?  Yes.  The response from the federal government?  Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  The local governments and the privately-owned power companies were left scrambling, as usual, without the resources to fix things.

How is this possible?  Simple: unusually strong winds during the storm, up to 70 mph (112 kph), knocked down huge trees everywhere.   In this part of the U.S., like most of the country, all the power lines are above ground, strung between flimsy wooden poles, exactly as they were over 100 years ago.  So just like that, in the blink of an eye, the high-tech region around the nation's capital was tossed back into the early 20th century, when horse-drawn carriages ruled the day and when the only form of air-conditioning was shade.

This is pathetic.  How can it be that we haven't put our valuable infrastructure - the power and communications network - underground, where a common thunderstorm can't touch it?  This debate comes up after every storm, as it has this week (especially in the Washington and Baltimore region), and the answer is always the same: it's too expensive.  The power company immediately responded to a few tentative suggestions that the lines should be underground, lashing out that those who were making the suggestions were naive, or didn't realize how costly it was.  The power company then blamed the victims, saying that local governments and residents make it difficult for them to trim the trees properly.

Tree trimming?  Are you kidding me?  How exactly were you planning to trim the 60-foot oak that fell in my back yard, snapping the power lines feeding our neighborhood?  Or the countless other huge trees that crashed through power lines?

The problem we face will never be solved by the power company.  It costs money to put lines underground, lots of it.  Sure, the costs of these disasters are far, far greater than the cost of "undergrounding", but those costs aren't paid by the power company, so why should they care?  They don't.

So yes, it is too expensive for the power company to put lines underground, so they will never, ever do it.  Not on their own dime, that is. Local governments won't solve it either: they are just too small and too poor.  We need a national effort to put our valuable, all-too-vulnerable power and communications lines underground - everywhere.  

What, the U.S. can't afford it?  It's true, we have a massive debt that is getting worse each year.  But somehow we can afford to build roads and other infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our national leaders seem to think the infrastructure in those countries is more important than in our own backyard.  This is just nuts.

Here's an argument that might just reach our political leaders.  Losing power and communications is a national security issue.  The storm last week caused far greater disruption than any terrorist could ever hope to achieve with man-made devices.  Our enemies don't need to attack us: they can simply let us continue to spend our money bombing other countries and then rebuilding the infrastructure in those countries.  Ironically, this was Reagan's strategy with the Soviet Union: force them to spend themselves out of existence.  It worked.

We need a discussion on this at the national level, where priorities need to be re-set to recognize the antequated state of our own infrastructure.  Over the past decade, we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars destroying much of the infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more billions re-building some of that infrastructure.  Then when a storm hits our own capital, government and industry representatives, and multiple columnists in the media, say it's "too expensive" to put the lines underground.

And by the way, the investment to fix our power infrastructure might be large, but overall it will save money, but only if you account for the costs to everyone (not just the power company).  The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that 
"service interruptions and capacity bottlenecks that … will cost households $6 billion in 2012, $71 billion in total by 2020 and $354 billion in total by 2040. Businesses will pay $10 billion in 2012, $126 billion in 2020 and $641 billion by 2040 in avoidable costs."
To avoid these losses, the ASCE estimates we need $11 billion in additional investment per year through 2020.

The Department of Homeland Security, created in the panic following the 9/11 attacks, hasn't taken any responsibility for putting our national power and communications infrastructure underground.  On the contrary: power crews from Canada who were coming to aid us down here in Maryland and Virginia after last week's storm got held up at the border by our own DHS personnel, delaying some of the crews by many hours while people sweated, food spoiled, and tempers boiled.  Let's stop all this phony security theater and start rebuilding our country.  Shut down the entire DHS if they can't even keep the lights on.

And let's bring our troops home now, today, and put them to work fixing our crumbling infrastructure.  Countless news stories over the past few years have lamented the difficulties that our veterans have finding jobs when they return home: well, there's plenty for them to do.   And fixing our infrastructure - undergrounding power lines, building new roads and bridges - is a far better use of our money than blowing things up.

8 comments:

  1. Another relic of the 20th century is the UN, the form of which truly belongs to an age of nation-states. Get the US out of the UN, and reallocate those resources to bringing our 20th century power grid into the present.

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  2. It seems it may be time to revisit Tesla's idea of using the ionosphere as the electrical transfer medium, rather than flimsy wires hung from twigs or burying them in the ground. Needing nearly no wires and accessible from anywhere on the planet, Tesla's vision is still waiting to unfurl.

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  3. Actually, I think the power companies only get paid to fix broken power lines, not to maintain current lines or improve them. It is not just that they don't have an incentive to underground the cables, they have an incentive not to. This is based in our national utilities regulations. Localize the problem and most of the problem will be taken care of. It's already happening in new developments all over the country.

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  4. You said:
    "multiple columnists in the media, say it's "too expensive" to put the lines underground."
    Do you have any links to those columns? I'd love to hear why these columnists think it's too expensive.

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    Replies
    1. sure, here is one:
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/how-to-make-the-utilities-treat-us-better/2012/07/07/gJQARb3PUW_story.html
      Notice that he writes "Let’s save time at the start by discarding the idea of burying all the overhead power lines." He is thinking small.

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    2. After thinking about the problem for a bit and reading that column, I came away with a few thoughts. First off, the fact that it could cost $6 billion to bury power lines is astounding! With price tags like that, it's a wonder any public works projects get done anymore. So I guess the issue really then comes down to cost effectiveness. Would burying power lines be the best solution? Of course. However, in someplace like the mid-Atlantic or Northeast (where I live) are catastrophic power outages that frequent of a concern that the money needs to be spent on buried power lines or is there a better, more cost effective solution? Pruning trees is surely a start, but not the answer. I don't know what the answer is. In the Southeast, where severe storms, especially hurricanes, occur more frequently, I think the expense of burying power lines is warranted.
      Any way you slice it, I think our country's infrastructure, especially in the DC-Boston I-95 corridor, is in trouble and I think it's going to take a massive loss of life and or property to change things.

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  5. I have been wondering this myself lately. It is almost maddening to see a road being totally rebuilt and still see powerlines overhead. It would seem if the electric companies work with the local communities during construction of roads and re-build projects, that the cost would be significantly decreased.

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  6. I am using this article as a topic for part of my schoolwork. I just say, this article got me thinking about what the US really spends their money on, and how it should be spent.

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