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October 20, 2014

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Destructive weather shows electrical supply is vulnerable

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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 still are 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, still are 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.

Wooden poles are heavier than steel and do not last as long, but linemen prefer to climb them. There are arguments about costs and the life of poles; about 30-40 years for wood and 40-60 years for steel.

Most U.S. electricity is supplied by 58 investor-owned utilities, with about 20 percent coming from publicly owned entities, ranging from the Tennessee Valley Authority to small municipal utilities.

Most people are likely to lose their power from tornadoes and other wind events that snap poles or, more commonly, from trees falling on power lines. 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. These are of quick-growing, shallow-rooted varieties that 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 the power companies over trimming and threaten to sue if their beloved trees are trimmed or cut down.

Steve Mitnick, an economist, a former energy adviser to the governor of New York and a 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 often are 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 of these.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.

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  1. Mr. King: The USA has a new normal. It's based on the European model: Bad, worse, worst and hold on it's going to be rough going for a long long time.

    CarmineD