Lessons from Sandy

Weather shows power grid vulnerable

November 15, 2012 

Better stock up on flashlights, batteries, non-perishable 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 lessons of Sandy – big and small – are not pretty.

The question is: Can the electric power system we have deal with the New Weather? The answer is plainly ”No.”

It 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 back to 1909. Laughable? Well, many of the large transformers that are essential to the operation of the electric power system are 45 years old and operating beyond their planned life expectancy, known in engineering terms as “design life.”

Wooden poles, which snap off in high winds, are still the standard poles in use for residential service, but 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. About 100 million wooden poles are in use across the country. One hundred thousand wooden poles were rushed to the East Coast to aid repairs after Sandy.

Steve Mitnick, an economist, former energy adviser to the governor of New York and longtime utility consultant, believes the power companies are in crisis, organically troubled and woefully unprepared for what appear to be major weather changes. Mitnick does not lay the blame wholly on the utilities; the forces that have shaped the electric infrastructure, including the regulators, the customers and the politicians, also are to blame.

The pressure, Mitnick says, has been for low rates, often described as affordable, reliable power. This has produced a philosophy that relies more on swift response to outages rather than engineering against weather damage.

The utilities are especially proud of what they call mutual assistance. These are agreements under which crews are rushed from other utilities to those that have outages.

For Sandy, these maintenance crews were sped to the East Coast with their equipment from across the country and Canada. The procedure works well 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, first-responder work, and the workers deserve recognition.

But it is an imperfect system when the damage is urban rather than rural or suburban. There are reports of out-of-state utility workers looking lost in lower Manhattan as they try to cope with the damage from Sandy in a world foreign to them.

For me, the depressing thing is the way we have come to accept the storm-related blackout as inevitable. This is another part of our sad acceptance of a declining infrastructure, from crowded roads to slow trains to a failing water supply. Once we had the best these.

Contact King, host of White House Chronicle on PBS at lking@kingpublishing.com.

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