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.
___

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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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