Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bury the Wires

Earlier this week, we had a lot of rain, high wind and cold along the East coast of the US. My house was one of many thousands of homes that were left without power by the storm. I was reminded again that the reliability of the US electrical power system (and its Canadian cousin) is the Achilles Heel of the information age.

Today I am writing about only one piece of the problem: residential electrical power distribution. Other parts of the reliability problem include the shortage of generation capacity to meet peak loads, weaknesses in the power grid, a complex regulatory framework, and the lack of coordination and contingency planning across the entire electric power system.

Outside of most big cities and newer planned developments, electricity is distributed to homes via overhead wires running along roadsides. Storms frequently knock down trees and branches, hitting the overhead wires and snapping them. Vehicles sometimes strike utility poles, breaking them and bringing the wires down. Lightning can strike transformers, burning them out and sending dangerous surges down the wires.

I live in a residential area where there are a lot of old-growth, tree-lined streets. In some places near me, there are wood lots bordering the roadways where trees and vines have grown over the utility wires. As a result, it doesn't take much of a storm to knock out power in my neigborhood -- it happens several times a year. And each time it happens, the power goes out for hours or days, until repair men and equipment get on site and re-string the wires and replace the poles.

These power outages we experience are more than a nuisance. The "comforts of home" are replaced by the cold darkness of the outdoors that modern men, women and children are poorly suited to deal with. Fires caused by candles and carbon monoxide poisoning from kerosene heaters used indoors are ways that people die due to power outages. For older people, the risks of deadly falls increase in the dark. For sick people, power outages can cause deadly interruptions and damage to medical systems.

I've lost a lot of expensive electrical equipment in power outages, including a computer and a monitor this week. I've also lost a lot of food in my refrigerator and freezer. I've spent a lot on surge supressors and battery-backup power systems to minimize the damage from my power woes. One thing I have not done is get an emergency backup generator to provide backup power to the whole house in the event of a prolonged power outage. In spite of my need for it, the cost is just too high.

The solution to this problem is obvious: bury the wires.

More than 100 years ago, utility companies in New York City implanted a vast array of poles in the streets of New York City. These poles soared ninety feet into the sky, held up to twenty-four crossties, each of which carried up to twenty wires. The city government grew increasingly concerned about this excessive wiring: electrical wires often snapped, fell to the ground, and sent sparks flying towards the city's citizens, homes, and businesses. In 1884, the New York State Legislature ordered that all electrical and communication wires were to be buried underground. (Source:

New York City adopted this solution more than 100 years ago! So, with all the progress since then, how can it be that other parts of the country have failed to do the right thing? There are two issues standing in the way of the solution: money and politics.

In economic terms, the upfront costs of burying all the wires would be very high. These costs would be borne by the utility companies and ultimately the rate payers. But, the utilities and some of its constituencies (stockholders, repair people, some customers, et al.) won't benefit from having the wires buried and don't want to pay for it. Most of the benefits would be enjoyed by those suburban, residential customers who would otherwise be at the end of dead power lines.

In political terms, business and consumer lobbies are opposed to burying the wires based on short-term economic considerations. Keeping electricity more affordable for everyone is more important that making it more reliable for suburban homeowners.

In many parts of the country battles to bury the power lines are being fought. In Tennessee, a newspaper reports, "Towns that bury electric power lines pay steep cost for aesthetics". In Florida, the town of Palm Beach is aggressively pushing a proposal that would require utilities statewide to put their power lines underground.

As they well know in Florida and as I know having recently spent time in the dark, the issue is not about aesthetics, it is about the reliability of electric power. Most states have laws and utility regulations that require electric companies to provide safe, reliable service at the lowest cost to consumers. All too often, however, cost considerations outweigh reliability requirements.

Wealthy, suburban communities which are self-governing, like the one I live in, should require utilities to bury the wires. We have the means, we have the incentive and we should be able to overcome the organized resistance. If New York can do it (and Murfreesboro, TN, et al.), we can too.

1 comment:

JudeTheObscure said...

Hi John,

Well said,

From what the experts say, Burying the wires is about 10 times more expensive and environmentally invasive, but still, im all for burying them.

I'd written a similar piece for my news paper, Check out :