Monday, November 19, 2012

Old grid meets new weather

Monday, November 19, 2012
By Llewellyn King
Better stock up on flashlights, batteries, nonperishable food, and potable water, because there is likely to be an electrical blackout in your future.
Three weeks after Superstorm Sandy tore up the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States, many are still without power. The question is: Can the electric power system we have deal with the New Weather? The answer is plainly no.
This is one of those situations in which no one is to blame and everyone is to blame.
Our electric power system is complex and uneven. Some of it is state-of-the-art, and some of it dates back a century.
In New England, according to the utility National Grid, one transformer dates to 1909. Many of the large transformers that are essential to the operation of the power system are 45 years old and operating beyond their planned life expectancy.
Wooden poles, which snap in high winds, are still the standard for residential service here, though Western Europe and industrialized Asia use steel and steel-reinforced concrete poles. The wooden pole business even has a lobby and its own trade association. A hundred thousand wooden poles were rushed to the East Coast after Sandy.
Most people are likely to lose their power from high winds that snap poles or, more commonly, fell trees. Nick Puga of Bates White, an economic consulting firm, points out that many residential communities were built in open farm fields over the past 40 years, and the first thing new homeowners do is plant trees. Quick-growing, shallow-rooted varieties have sprung up near power lines.
But even in older residential communities, trees are a huge problem. People love them - the bigger, the older, the more spreading, the better. Residents fight with power companies over trimming.
Steve Mitnick, a longtime utility consultant, believes power companies are woefully unprepared for major weather changes. Mitnick does not lay the blame wholly on the utilities; the forces that have shaped electric infrastructure, including regulators, customers, and politicians, are also to blame.
The pressure, Mitnick says, has been for low rates. This produced a philosophy that relies more on swift response to outages than on engineering against weather damage.
The utilities are especially proud of what they call mutual assistance, under which crews are rushed from other utilities to those that have outages. For Sandy, maintenance crews sped to the East Coast with equipment from across the country and Canada. This works when the damage is limited to downed lines. But when it is bigger, as with recent storms, the imported crews are often at a loss, not knowing the local infrastructure or the whereabouts of trunk lines and transformers.
It is dangerous, difficult work that deserves recognition. But it is an imperfect system when the damage is urban rather than rural or suburban. There were reports of out-of-state utility workers looking lost in lower Manhattan.
What I find depressing is that we have come to accept the storm-related blackout as inevitable. This is part of our sad acceptance of declining infrastructure, from crowded roads to slow trains to failing water supplies. Once we had the best of these.

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