What We Learn When the Lights Go Out, #1

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Lots of thoughts rolling in about the ongoing blackout in Washington DC and what it shows us -- about climate change and weather trends, about resiliency on the individual and social levels, about overhead versus underground electric lines, about public vs private utility companies.

In honor of Independence Day, which along with Thanksgiving Day is America's greatest holiday, I'll roll them out in selected form in the next few dispatches. Here's a start.. A reader sends this sobering info:

Dominion Power in Virginia has a write up on recent studies and costs on the Under vs. Above Ground issue.  It can be found here.
[JF note: I step in at this point to quote some eye-opening figures from the study.
"In 2005, a study by the Virginia State Corporation Commission found that overhead-to-underground conversion would have 'tremendous costs' that would make 'a comprehensive statewide effort appear to be unreasonable.'

  • The study, conducted in response to a request from the General Assembly, found the cost of placing existing overhead electric, telephone and cable television lines could approach $94 billion. For electric lines alone, the cost was estimated to be $83.3 billion; the conversion cost per mile was approximately $800,000.
  • A statewide conversion project would impose an additional yearly financial burden of approximately $3,000 per electric customer, the study warned. 'The costs would be paid ultimately by consumers, either directly or indirectly, in the form of prices, taxes, or utility rates.'
  • The project would also cause 'significant disruptions' for customers and 'could take decades to complete,' the SCC study warned." Now, back to the reader's note.] 
As with every other infrastructure issue facing the country, it comes down to the fact that everyone wants to go to heaven, nobody wants to die...

I hope that at some point the country can either come to terms with making the best with what we're willing to pay for, or be willing to pay for how we'd actually like things.  Until then, this stuff will continue.

And they've got their own problems, too. From a reader in Seattle:

I remember from our last megastorm (2006), that everyone was asking Puget Sound Energy why they couldn't bury cables underground (like in Europe, some of us added).
 
The large capital cost is just one reason... But I was struck by the realization that underground isn't a panacea either. The environment is challenging - it's usually wet and contains leached chemicals. Electric current generates heat - duh - and there's nowhere for the heat to go, further stressing the cables. We all notice when a storm knocks out power because it's widespread. Underground failures do happen, just not all at once, and cost more money and disruption to repair.
 
That's what I remember, but here's PSE's take on it. It's written to make them look good, of course, but FWIW.
 
Gathering it all up, the capital cost of underground is more, but the O&M long-term is less, as everybody "knows". But the break-even point? If my math is right, taking the averages, order of 5,000+ years.

Plus, they're hard to repair. From a graduate student in the Southeast:

 A lot of the lines where I grew up in South Florida are underground.  This makes them less likely to suffer wind damage during hurricanes, it's true. 

However, in addition to cost, underground power lines suffer from another problem: repair.  The conduits carrying these linescan become waterlogged (again, especially in South Florida), and when anunderground line fails at a single point, it is much harder to find that point if the line is buried and can't be easily visually inspected.

What are we revealing about our vulnerabilities? This note started out as a standard "those wimpy Washingtonians get all panicked about the weather," but then took a different turn:

It's funny how the past few days have shown, again, the fragility of the US electrical infrastructure and how, again, DC goes bananas whenever some kind of rain, snow, thunder or wind sweeps through the region.  For all the pretensions to global influence and delusions of power, DC apparently will descend into anarchy if the lights and air conditioning don't work for a few days. 

For all our military might, global diplomacy, and high tech innovation, we still can't function without electricity.  If we're not noticing how vulnerable this makes us, potential adversaries certainly are.

The cost of "self-reliance." From a reader who identifies himself as a small-c conservative, and who lives in the Pepco "service" area:

As Pepco becomes less reliable to provide the service that has been provided for decades, people will have to adjust.  People will become a little more self reliant.  However, those efforts and costs will divert resources from other areas and keep us from doing things that currently keep us "busy". 

Despite the honorable intentions of self reliance, this seems like a step back and will make us less wealthy.  The concern I have is this new expectation is just the latest in decades of failing institutions and  decline in standard of living.  Many point to flat screens on the walls of low income families and health care quality compared to our great-great grandparents as signs of improving quality of life, end of discussion.  But that discussion fails to address the things that have been taken away like pensions and now the belief the lights will be on.  Our peace of mind is taken away as those sorts of things slip away from us. 

Those are the things that make this feel like country is in decline to so many, even as they are talked into their own feelings being irrational by the people pointing at the big TVs...

The challenge for our leaders is to build the institutions that deliver what Americans expect, but are sustainable in today's world, even if it means unwinding what's left of our existing institutions.

Watch out for those generators!

My wife and I live in Bowie MD.  We bought a generator 5 years ago and have had several occasions to put it to good use.  Our power is still out after 3 days but we've managed to keep our fridge and freezer running.  We have found that we can get by with shutting it down overnight as well as for a few hours at a time during the day.  It also helps to have a propane grill for cooking and a gas powered water heater...
 
Our next door neighbor, Bill, got a generator after last summer's power outage.  The only trouble was that he only had 5 gallons of gasoline stockpiled (enough for 10 hours) and had trouble finding a working gas station the first day.  We had 15 gallons stockpiled and were able to find an open gas station on the second day.
 
Our friends Janine and Bob had a generator and 35 gallons of gasoline stockpiled.  Unfortunately, their generator malfunctioned and caught fire, which set off their stockpile in the shed, which then exploded and set their house on fire.  They were able to get out with the clothes on their backs and their vehicles.   Their insurance company immediately gave them spending money to tide them over while assessing the damage.
 
So be prepared but be very careful.

Yes, it is imperial decline. From a veteran of Republican politics:

Northern Virginia was hard-hit as well, and my power was out 72 hours (although like you I am a couple of thousand miles away and conflicted over whether I should trade my comfort for being able to save about $400 of food in fridges and freezers).

It really drives home the fact (and your other correspondents have not emphasized this sufficiently) that the US is becoming in many respects a third world country due to misplaced priorities and a shallow libertarianism. It's not just electricity infrastructure, either. Germany is a country that freezes in winter, but you don't see frost-heaved road pavement. Why? They build the roadbeds much deeper. American contractors seem to prefer pie crust roads.

Adjusted for inflation, the US has spent well over $20 trillion on the military since the cold war began. Does anyone think if we had only spent $15 trillion we would be speaking Russian? What about the $1 trillion we squandered on Iraq? Could a portion of that have gone for improved electricity grids, better water filtration (with backup generators - the fact that some water filtration plants can't pump water when the grid goes down is scandalous), better roads, and better infrastructure in general?

We can incarcerate more people than any other country, and we can assassinate people half way around the world with drones, but we can't keep the lights on in the imperial capital. Pathetic.

Happy Fourth of July!

Underground lines sound great, but they are hellaciously expensive

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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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