Let's Talk Infrastructure (and Extreme Weather, and Pepco)

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My wife and I are still not back to DC, where in our part of town the power's been off since Friday afternoon and is expected to be out for four more days. To be clear: I personally have nothing to complain about. The downed trees in our yard didn't hit our house; they barely damaged our car; I feel bad both for people who are coping with heat and no power, and for the crews working in the heat and through the night to clear debris from a historic storm. So I'm not whining. [UPDATE: We hear from our neighbors that the power is back on, after 3+ days rather than the warned-against 7+. I'm grateful!]

And to those who have written with free advice that we buy a chain saw or a generator, let me say:
 - A chain saw we have, duh thanks;
 - A generator we have not until recently foreseen a reason to own. The story of modern life is that as people move from farms and hamlets into cities, certain functions become more efficient to provide on a central basis. Our family doesn't keep its own cows and chickens, even though I raised those in my youthful 4-H days. Instead we get eggs, milk, meat at the store. We don't have our own well for drinking water, or our own coal mine or iron forge, or our own on-site garbage dump or emergency room, because all these things seemed more sensible to "outsource" to companies and city utilities, on which we could rely. So too with electric power -- until recently.

But the combination of more extreme storms; and five days' power outage last winter and the predicted week-plus this summer; and the knowledge that the overhead powerlines and abundant trees in DC mean that  emergencies like this will come again -- all of this is making me reconsider the generator option.

Without taking the time now for further agree/disagree glosses, here is a sample of the incoming haul.

Why people are mad at Pepco
. I have nothing but admiration for the crews that are working in tough situations. But the electric company itself? It's worth noting that this is a corporation, not a city utility, and Gregg Easterbrook explains the tradeoff it has made:

As the good-government website OurDC notes,"From 2008 to 2010, Pepco CEO Joe Rigby earned $8.8 million and Pepco top officers earned more than $22 million. During that same period, Pepco reported $882 million in profits, paid no federal and state income taxes and received $817 million in tax refunds." Yet as the money rolled in, the Maryland Public Service Commission allowed Pepco to cut back on maintenance, in order to divert funds to dividends and management bonuses....

Pepco faces a simple reliability equation: The more it spends on improving service, the less is available for dividends and executive bonuses. CEO Rigby is a major shareholder, so in effect awards himself a commission when he keeps infrastructure spending low and dividends high. After the mega-thunderstorm, Dominion Power [another provider in the area] took 14 hours to restore all its transformers and main feeder lines... while Pepco took 36 hours... Within 48 hours of the storm, Dominion had 2,000 out-of-state workers present to assist in restoration; Pepco had just 300. If Pepco drags its feet on recovery, the utility avoids paying doubletime or tripletime, plus expenses, to out-of-state crews.

Underground vs. above ground Many, many messages to this effect:

In your recent blog entry on power outages in the US, I'm left wondering: why are the electric lines not buried? Far be it for me to point out that this isn't a problem in western Europe...

Similarly:

a German friend visiting us this weekend asked the simple question: WHY ARE ALL THE POWER LINES ABOVE GROUND. WHY INDEED. Here is the perfect stimulus program.

The cities that move to the modern age will immediately have business flock to  "power safe" environments. Republicans will scream COST. Boehner, Cantor, McConnell: if you have power, answer this question!The total real ost of NOT going underground must be in the billions per anum all across urban USA.

From a young Chinese woman now living in Washington:

I came back home last night  shocked to find my place in complete darkness. I fumbled to the basement where the electricity control panel is and did that switch on and off thing -- nothing happened. I thought I must have forgotten to pay the electricity bills! It was not until half an hour later when I received a voicemail [presumably on cell phone] from my roommate that I learned what happened. I thought: fine, I can live without air-conditioner for one night.

But when I got into the shower and there was no hot water, it suddenly hit me that I was not in China any more! Because in China, a lot of households have solar-powered water heating. And we've had it for more than a decade in my house. I took it for granted that even when the power was down, I could still have a nice hot shower, only that's not true in the States! Alas, if only DC had solar panels on its rooftops.

Sorry about the ranting. Last night's experience was just too shocking and funny for me. As you wrote in your post, I didn't expect a major city like DC would have a power outage in some neighborhoods (mine) for a week.

And:

My father is a planning engineer of a electric utility; he has been working at his company for over 25 years. He and I have frequent conversations about utility issues. His thoughts on storms and outages:

Obviously, one solution  is underground power line burial. However, it is abundantly clear that ratepayers do not wish to pay for the burial of power lines.

Perhaps this storm will change their minds. Perhaps not.

More on how minds might change, from a reader in California:

For me an interesting coincidence that you would write about this today; after the video I watched yesterday, about the misguided environmentalists' notions about solar.  It was a presentation at Cal Berkeley by Ozzie Zehner, hitting the highlights of his book, Green Illusions.  I think his concept has some merit; there is more to be gained by reducing waste than by trying harder to fill the "leaky bucket"...
 
So everything Zehner said sounded so logical and conclusive until I read your piece this morning.  You reminded me of one of the real advantages of alternatives to centralized power production, the idea of "distributed generation".  (Here is a link to a Virginia Tech website that describes the concept.)  Put simply, if every building was generating some or all of its own electricity, seems a lot less likely that we would have major catastrophes when a tree is blown over.
 
So the question is, which infrastructure do we want to put our dollars into?

Taking on the burden of preparedness, from another reader in California:

Here in earthquake country, we are frequently exhorted to be prepared to be on our own for a time  when "a" and/or "the" big one hits.  So perhaps emulating that preparedness (note to self, must check the expiration dates on the freeze-dried foods and get a fresh round of water...and prime the petards) on the East Coast would be a good idea.  Ultrapasteurized milk for the kids, drinking water, etc.  Perhaps even some small generators to keep fridges and whatnot going.

Drifting ever so slightly, it was mildly ironic that both images of "tree versus automobile" had SUVs, with their relatively larger consumption of fossil fuels and released-carbon contribution.  Speaking of automobiles, they are rather inefficient generators, but there are small refrigerators that operate off of 12v car current.  Probably large enough to keep some vital medicine cool.

Oh, and one more thing - that electric garage door opener - don't forget they happen to have a release mechanism to disconnect the lift motor to allow them to be operated manually... [Yes, correct]

After the jump, a very long message representative of many I have received.
___

A reader in Southern California sends the message below. Way down at the bottom I will explain where and why I disagree. The reader writes:

If you own your home, I assume you have homeowner's insurance, which is designed to help you in case your home was damaged by the storm.
 
Likewise, you may also have comprehensive auto insurance, which can help you repair the damage that the tree might have done to your car.  And I assume that you have some form of health insurance, which would help you take care of any medical problems caused by the storm.
 
By purchasing such insurance, you acknowledge that bad things happen, and you choose to purchase insurance to help you deal with such events, such as a bad storm.  You prepared.  All on your own.
 
When it comes to a loss of electricity due to the same storm, you have indicated that it's unacceptable that utility companies take up to 5 calendar days, presumably working 24 hours a day, to repair extensive damage and restore power to thousands of customers.
 
Okay, so it's unacceptable to you, and the families with kids, and particularly seniors whose health / lives may be threatened by the heat.  I totally understand that it can be a major inconvenience or even a life threatening situation, and it makes you realize how incredibly dependent we are on electricity for nearly every aspect of our lives today.  5 days without electricity can obviously be a serious issue, especially in the extreme weather of winter or summer.
 
But instead of complaining about the utilities, I would ask, What you have done to prepare for such a disaster?  Since you experienced this type of power outage once before during the winter of 2011, what plan did you put in place afterwards to deal with a recurrence?  How did you prepare after that event?  How were you prepared for this storm and the ensuing outage?  Having done this once before, why aren't you discussing the success of your emergency planning and preparedness?  Why is it not a sharing of the tools and techniques that worked and didn't work for you?  (maybe you have done many things and are executing your plan, but I didn't see anything about that in your post) [JF note: As I pointed out, I am 1800 miles away and in no position to do anything about my house.]
 
Why is it that you presumably prepare for harm to your house, your car, and your body, but don't prepare for a few days without electricity?  Isn't it possible for you to take responsibility for your temporary electrical needs in case of such an event?
 
You say that "America's motto is supposed to be resilience."  By America, do you mean someone other than you, such as your electric utility and your Federal and local Government keepers?  And by resilience, do you mean that someone else, such as a large corporation, or the magical all-providing Federal and local Government, is supposed to take care of your problems, in the time window that suits you?
 
I propose an alternate interpretation of your phrase.  America = You.  Resilience = Preparedness.  Implicit in that is a strong theme of personal responsibility, which I think is a much better theme to share than blame or criticisms of others.
 
I live in a Los Angeles suburb, which as you know from living here, is prone to occasional earthquakes.  And Los Angeles obviously has some history with civil unrest and regularly has typical urban problems ranging from transformer explosions to water main ruptures.  Bad things happen.
 
I have attended a 3 day CERT course offered free of charge by my city.  The number one theme that is stressed in all aspects of the excellent training program is that above all else, CERT members need to be responsible for taking care of themselves and their families for an extended period of time in the event of a major disaster or emergency.  I live in a city of 110,000 people with 25 fire department employees on call at any given time.  The fire department personnel who taught the CERT class emphasized that in case of a city wide emergency, these simple numbers obviously dictate that the fire department and EMT personnel can't possibly attend to the needs of dozens or hundreds of simultaneous emergencies--and those first responders have families too.  In such a case, they continuously emphasized that I am on my own.  And I'm perfectly fine with that.
 
My city, in conjunction with a local corporate sponsor, offers free 30 gallon emergency water barrels to residents and has an excellent program with constant newspaper articles and ads encouraging city residents to prepare for a disaster (including the free CERT training).  They have a reverse 911 system with a web site that lets you sign up for alerts via phone, SMS, and e-mail.  They have an emergency preparedness team that coordinates with the city CERT members and we have monthly CERT meetings.  And they offer discounted first aid and CPR classes to all residents.
 
I am absolutely not a "doomsday prepper", but I am an Eagle Scout who believes in the motto of "Be Prepared", and I'm very interested in taking care of my family in the event of a foreseeable disaster or emergency.  I have over 90 gallons of dedicated emergency water ready, within the range recommended by CERT and FEMA guidelines.  I have several weeks of emergency food for my family.  I have a complete first aid kit, a decent emergency supplies cache, and two 'business-grade' fire extinguishers.  I have two emergency cooking stoves, a case of butane, and an extra propane cylinder for the BBQ.  It doesn't take up much space and it's all tucked away neatly in my garage or by the side of my house.  I conduct simple emergency preparedness drills with my family at least twice a year to cover the basic response to an earthquake.  My two young daughters absolutely love it because they get light sticks and get to play with our emergency lantern and LED headlamps as they help with the drill.  My four year old regularly asks me when we can "practice the house shaking and lights going out".  All of this is normal for my family.
 
You may recall that in September 2011, routine maintenance at a southwestern power facility caused a massive blackout from San Diego to Mexico.
 
http://framework.latimes.com/2011/09/08/massive-blackout-san-diego/#/0
 
After watching the chaos unfold in San Diego, I realized that I didn't have any options for backup power.  I had previously considered an emergency generator but couldn't justify the purchase--until I saw what happens when an entire city (region) loses power for an extended period of time.  No lights, no communications, no traffic control, and no groceries or gasoline in many locations.  Chaos.
 
I made a quick trip to the local Honda Power dealer and drove home with a very simple portable generator that can power my refrigerator, lights, computer, and charge mobile devices.  And I purchased several extension cords that I can run throughout my house.  My generator runs on gasoline, so I now have 20 gallons of emergency gasoline in four jugs that are tucked away on the side of the house.  The fuel can run the generator for 20 days, or it can top off our minivan in case we choose to try and leave the city.
 
My preparation and planning will never be perfect and will never be complete, but I think it's pretty darn good.  It cost me far less than 1 year of our health insurance premiums and only took a few days of work over the last few years to build up our supplies.  There are probably dozens of web sites and forums dedicated to emergency preparedness, from basic first aid to the now popular full-scale global zombie outbreak, and there are plenty of specialty stores and web sites that sell the less common supplies.  In the age of the Internet, such preparation is not difficult.
 
Obviously I have no expectations or misconceptions that everyone can or will be sufficiently prepared for any given disaster, or that even a majority of people will even be minimally prepared, but I wanted to counter your complaint about the time it takes utilities to recover from such an event and point out that this is an opportunity for everyone to learn and prepare.   The American people are far from helpless and have many opportunities to take care of themselves instead of expecting someone else to take care of them, or being at the mercy of a utility repair crew or a government agency.

To which I say: Of course we all prepare to protect ourselves against foreseeable risks. We buy insurance because we know that the relevant risks -- car crashes, break-ins, accidents, expensive disease -- are part of the roster of life's uncertainties. When I was growing up in Southern California, of course our family had an earthquake-prep kit, as my wife and I also did when living with our children in Japan.

But until recently, I had no reason to think that repeated, multi-day power outages were in that same category of foreseeable risk. In our previous decades as homeowners in DC, these episodes had not lasted more than a few hours at worst. We didn't think we needed our own electric supply, any more than we needed our own private military to guard against invaders from Canada or wherever.

Now a combination of more extreme weather, and the infeasibility of moving all wires quickly (or ever) underground, means that the "normal" risk factor has expanded to not being able to rely on power from the utility company. These two episodes will change everyone's idea of what "being prepared" means. Still the original point remains: this shift in the risk profile shows something about the effect of a more violent and extreme climate, and something about American infrastructure. Happy impending Fourth of July.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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