Consider yourself lucky if you are able to read this right now. For more than 72 hours, millions of families along the East Coast have been trying to survive in the dark without power, no air conditioning, no way to keep the fridge cold, and no lights at night. For 21st century America, the region more closely resembles a night on Gilligan’s Island.
According to The Wall Street Journal, more than two million residents across the mid-Atlantic region are still without power after a series of tumultuous storms blew through between June 29th and July 1st.
Sunday’s hurricane-strength storm also claimed the lives of 22 people from more than four states in what some are calling the deadliest storms in years. Where there is power, hotels are reporting 100% occupancy rates as people seek shelter from the sweltering triple-digit heat recently brought to the eastern third of the country.
Pepco and Baltimore Gas & Electric are just a few of the energy providers working overtime to restore power, but company officials say a lack of preparation is cutting into their recovery time. Those in the most damaged parts of West Virginia could be without power through the weekend.
So what can be done to prevent another outage during one of the hottest summers on record? Some energy experts have suggested installing power lines underground. That idea is not novel and has been used successfully in many countries, including Germany. Even newer areas of the U.S. have installed distribution lines underground to avoid climactic events, leaving some to ask, why haven’t we done more here?
The notion of stringing power lines between poles has been a standard practice since 1891 when New York became one of the first cities to utilize lines on a large scale. Most of us remember growing up with electric lines dangling from tar covered wooden telephone poles in the alleys along with the occasional hum of an overhead transformer which always seemed to grow louder in the summer air.
Above-ground lines are, well, cheaper than placing lines underground. Moreover, because areas along the eastern seaboard were settled first, their infrastructure is naturally older. Dense development has also played a role in how and where utilities can be run.
Government officials say the $1 million per mile price tag for underground lines is not justifiable, especially when one considers the logistics of placing new lines in already-crowded underground utility easements. That said, newer developments in Texas and Arizona have mandated that all new distribution lines be placed underground. Where underground lines have been installed, they have generally made for more reliable service.
However, main transmission lines used for transporting electricity over large distances aren’t suitable for placement underground.
What does make sense, however, is to modify the current system so that main distribution trunk lines are installed underground. Even in times of climactic events like storms, tornados, hurricanes and even ice, the infrastructure will be more resilient. A more robust and secure electric infrastructure means less downtime when the worst does occur.
These storms were made all the worse because they were not anticipated. In times of anticipated weather events, such as hurricanes, supplemental contracted crews are pre-staged in order to make recovery efforts more efficient.
All of this brings to light the fact that our entire electric grid is in need of a serious overhaul. While the national grid weaknesses did not come into play with these storms, blackouts in New York and elsewhere will continue to provide a reminder that more needs to be done. Upgrading the national grid should be a priority for the Obama administration.
Much more can also be done at the local level to enhance reliability, and local utilities should embrace ways to fortify their systems. Improvements are costly, which is why getting upgrades through are not popular as soon as an electric company mentions the need to raise rates.
Americans may be willing to help subsidizethe cost of capital improvements, especially over time. Energy companies also need to weigh the costs of upgrading with the ever-increasing costs expended with each storm. Either way, it is time to begin modernizing and enhancing national grid.
Read it on Forbes