No one expects utilities to conquer Mother Nature. But they're not helpless, either.
Something about large storms and the power outages they inevitably cause seems to bring out a sense of helpessness in certain politicians and utility officials.
After the "derecho" storm that pulverized the mid-Atlantic two summers ago, an executive of a Washington, D.C.-area electric utility that consistently underperforms others in the region noted defensively, "We can't control the weather," as if the storms are a sheer surprise.
After last week's ice storm knocked out power for days to nearly three-quarters of a million people in the South, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal observed that "when freezing rain begins to fall, the power lines and the limbs that are adjacent to power lines become very susceptible to breaking." Who knew?
And after customers saw their power going in and out in South Carolina, Gary Stooksburg of Aiken Electric Co-Operative explained, "For the first two days, we put up lines, and they tore down right behind us."
True enough. The storm was severe, the repair crews were heroic, and no one expects utilities to conquer Mother Nature. But they're not helpless, either.
OPPOSING VIEW: Burying lines not one-size-fits-all solution
Instead of bromides, what politicians and utility officials could usefully be saying to the millions of people who are left hunkering under blankets when a big storm rolls through is that they'll make sure these predictable power outages happen less often. One way to do that is by burying power lines underground, where ice and wind can't snap them.
People served by buried lines have dramatically fewer outages, according to two studies by the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utility companies.
The idea is good enough that many American cities put most lines underground years ago, and lines for most new subdivisions are buried. Overall, though, roughly 80% of lines in the USA still hang overhead.
Such "undergrounding" of power lines can be pricey. But the figure opponents commonly cite — 10 times as expensive as stringing lines overhead — is misleading. The actual cost can be half that, or less, depending on local conditions and whether lines are buried when developments are built or when roads are being torn up anyway.
The best idea is to identify the lines most likely to get knocked down and begin by burying those. A study for Pepco, the underperforming Washington-area utility, found that while burying all lines would cost $5.8 billion and add a ridiculous $107 a month to customer bills for 30 years, burying just the most vulnerable lines would cost about one-sixth as much and prevent 65% of outages, a more reasonable tradeoff.
Buried lines are no panacea; they're susceptible to flooding and can take longer to fix. But what utility officials rarely seem to take into account is what outages cost consumers: businesses that have to close, families that have to throw out spoiled food, people who wind up hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning when they try to stay warm by using space heaters, and homeowners who conclude they have to invest in backup generators.
Utilities can ignore those costs. Their customers cannot.
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