Deep Down

As you know, Washington and Northern Virginia were blasted with an unusual strong thunderstorm Friday that knocked out power to millions. There are still many without power; a potentially lethal situation given the intense heat wave of the last week.

But could this have been prevented by burying the power lines?

Outages are not inevitable. The German power grid has outages at an average rate of 21 minutes per year.

The winds may howl. The trees may fall. But in Germany, the lights stay on.

There’s no Teutonic engineering magic to this impressive record. It’s achieved by a very simple decision: Germany buries almost all of its low-voltage and medium-voltage power lines, the lines that serve individual homes and apartments. Americans could do the same. They have chosen not to.

The choice has been made for reasons of cost. The industry rule of thumb is that it costs about 10 times as much to bury wire as to string wire overhead: up to $1 million per mile, industry representatives claim. Since American cities are much less dense than European ones, there would be a lot more wire to string to serve a U.S. population than a European one.

Frum goes over several reasons to believe those costs are massively overblown. The most important is one I harp on all the time: costs are only part of the equation. You also have to factor in benefits: needing fewer repair crews, having less down time, fewer people dying from heat waves, expensive food or medicine not being lost as fridges lose their cool, eliminating the danger of downed live wires.

I have to agree with Frum that the griping about costs is more of a matter of industry inertia. Frankly, it sounds like an industry angling for a subsidy. This can’t be that expensive. Both houses I’ve owned had all utility lines underground and neither would be remotely described as a rich neighborhood. In fact, my first house had underground lines courtesy a local electricity co-op. I owned shares in that thing and our finances were reasonable.

This is possible. And it is highly desirable. Neighborhoods without power lines not only have fewer outages but are less cluttered and unsightly. And the danger of downed lines disappears.

This is obviously a local thing, not a federal matter. But it seems like a reasonable investment over a long period of time. So why is it not being done? Why is it not being insisted on? I ask out of real curiosity.

Comments are closed.

  1. Seattle Outcast

    Where I live all new development has buried lines. It’s the old shit that’s the problem – I fully intend to install a 10KW natural gas generator and an automatic transfer switch just because it goes out so fucking much.

    The windstorm a few years back in December left people without power for two weeks. I had hot water, fireplaces and a could lite my gas range, but no juice.

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  2. InsipiD

    It took a lot longer to identify and fix underground cable problems in Christchurch after the earthquakes.

    Everything is a compromise, and perhaps buried line is more appropriate in DC than in countries in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

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  3. sahrab

    It took a lot longer to identify and fix underground cable problems in Christchurch after the earthquakes

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesnt matter what the subject, if you (CM) were not the one that came up with the whatevers being discussed you’ll denegrate it just to be on the opposite side of the discussion

    Everything is a compromise, and perhaps buried line is more appropriate in DC than in countries in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

    While the DC are got hit with a 5.8 last year this is not a normal occurance.

    Last year, after Irene, my power was out for more than a week (thank you generac) yet the base i work on, and my wifes work (also a government institution) still had power because their transfer lines are all buried.

    Its short sightedness If the local/state governments would get off their asses and think about something other than slots and opening competing casino’s (Marylands holding a special session about Gambling, while ignoring the budget deficits) there isnt a reason not to go through an infrastructure rebuild and bury our lines.

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  4. Seattle Outcast

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesnt matter what the subject, if you (CM) were not the one that came up with the whatevers being discussed you’ll denegrate it just to be on the opposite side of the discussion

    The exception being conversations about pussy. He’s all for that, regardless of who brings it up.

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  5. Miguelito

    In San Diego, it’s as SO says above.. old neighborhoods have poles, new ones have been underground from the start for decades. The sad thing is that we’ve been paying fees to SDG&E since before I had my own bill for undergrounding projects. They finally started the thing about 10 years ago. Finally, a few years ago they did one tiny section per city council district (as a token gesture) and then basically ground to a stand still (other then in the 2 highest income areas I think). There’s actually an interactive map at the city that let’s you check timetables on a map. I started checking my little area nearly 8 years ago. Back then it was slated to start this year and be done by mid-2013. I checked back every few months and each time it was pushed back a few years. Now it’s scheduled to start in fucking 2048!

    I’ll likely be dead and buried (I’m only 39) before they actually do the work and I’ve been paying for it my entire adult life.

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  6. Miguelito

    Bah.. iPad failing me on attempt to fix the “let’s” typo there…

    I should’ve checked again before posting, now the data is:
    Project Start: May 31, 2049
    Project End: May 31, 2051

    So it’s been bumped yet again since my last check.

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  7. hist_ed

    The windstorm a few years back in December left people without power for two weeks. I had hot water, fireplaces and a could lite my gas range, but no juice.

    Holy shit yeah, that one taught me a lesson. My power was out for 8 days. No heat, no stove, the only thing I had was hot water. The camp stove ran out after a day or so and I wound up doing a lot of cooking in my fireplace (wrap up stuff in foil and throw it in). Then the fire wood ran out.

    Now every fall I buy a bunch of fuel canisters for the camp stove (just got a gas stove though, so I should be fine this year), make sure I have lots of firewood and pile up the canned food. If nothing happens I use it all in the spring.

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  8. davidst

    The house I grew up in, built in about 1980, had underground lines. I’ve always lived in the path of hurricanes and I think they realized that it’s best to bury them considering how frequently we’re targeted by bad storms. I guess the cost is in installing underground lines where buildings and houses already exist. It’s not so bad when it’s planned ahead of time and they can lay the lines in empty dirt before the streets are even paved.

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  9. Seattle Outcast

    the only thing I had was hot water.

    Thermal switches sure are nice, aren’t they? I was lucky that the gas fireplaces in the house ran off of them – flipped a switch and bingo! we have heat. We have a “master bedroom suite” that includes a fireplace, so we shut the door and read books while the back-up battery for the alarm annoyingly beeped itself to death.

    At night we broke out the Costco pack of D-cells and aimed a monster mag-lite at the ceiling and listened to the radio. It was cold enough in the house that nothing in the fridge went bad, but everything in the freezer got tossed. Cooking was easy – I just used the BBQ lighter for the gas range.

    The last thing I was going to do was buy a portable generator (if you could find one) at disaster prices. However, a friend of mine says he’ll buy a 7KW portable unit and leave it my place if I want to get the transfer switch installed. He’ll just come over and hang with us for the duration.

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  10. CM

    Everything is a compromise, and perhaps buried line is more appropriate in DC than in countries in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

    Absolutely. It’s the only (and obvious) reason other than initial cost that I can think of.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesnt matter what the subject, if you (CM) were not the one that came up with the whatevers being discussed you’ll denegrate it just to be on the opposite side of the discussion

    Jesus Christ man, Hal asked for any good reason why it might not be done. Get a fucking grip.

    The exception being conversations about pussy. He’s all for that, regardless of who brings it up.

    ;-)

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  11. West Virginia Rebel

    I grew up in Southern California-everything was underground, in those neighborhoods that were built in the Sixties and Seventies. The main problem now seems to be an outdated grid and policies that seem more geared to reward various individuals in the power industry for their support.

    The scary part is, this is what it would be like on a weekly basis if the EPA had its way with regards to coal…

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  12. Seattle Outcast

    The EPA is, and always has been, essentially beholden to extremist environmentalist terror organizations such as Greenpeace, Sea Watch, Sierra Club, People Off Planet, etc.

    Based on its history, the goal of the EPA is the deconstruction of industrialized civilization, and up until very recently there were no checks on its authority to do whatever the fuck it wanted to.

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  13. CM

    Balthazar, your own link (and sublink) makes it clear that the farm dust thing is a ‘rumor’. So you can’t claim it yet.

    “Unfortunately, there’s significant misinformation being circulated regarding EPA’s review of Clean Air Act standards for particulates,” Richard Mylott, public affairs specialist with the EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, claimed in an e-mail to Eric Brown at The Tribune newspaper, Greeley, Colo.

    Brown reports that Mylott explained the EPA is going through its five-year review of scientific evidence about the impact to human health of “particulate matter,” and when EPA reviews an air quality standard, it is required to issue a proposal, even if the review recommendation is no change to existing standards. Additionally, Mylott claimed any change to a standard would have to be based on science to ensure public health protection.

    http://www.dairyherd.com/e-newsletters/dairy-daily/Dust-pollution-regulations-still-worrisome-129623573.html?ref=573

    The president played down the concerns, saying that early regulatory ideas that aren’t slated to become law can be blown out of proportion. Some others agree.

    “You’ve heard of urban legends, well these are rural myths,” said Don Carr of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington non-profit that advocates health and environmental regulation. “The big myth is that EPA is going to come in and regulate folks when the truth is that agriculture enjoys severe exemptions from the Clean Water Act and they’re not regulated at all from row crop.”

    the EPA says it doesn’t have specific, major regulations on the horizon for agriculture and that many regulatory rumors simply aren’t true. The agency points to reports of new dust regulations, state nutrient limits, spray drift standards, methane limitations on livestock and requirements to treat milk spill as oil spills as all being false.

    http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/09/14/regulation-nation-farmers-worry-over-crop-new-rules/#ixzz1zmiNYk2n

    Your link says:

    One farmer said that she spent 15 hours a week filling out forms to track each load of manure that her animals generated.

    However I can’t find that in any of the sublinks.

    I’ll look into that BP Gulf oil spill claim….

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