Tag: Electricity distribution

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.

Winding Us Up

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s he eeevil Bjorn Lomborg again, popping the balloons of those who think wind will be our energy future:

A new report by University of Edinburgh professor Gordon Hughes for the Global Warming Policy Foundation estimates that 36 GW of new wind power [in the UK] would cost $190 billion for just 23 megatons of CO2 reduction per year. In other words, temperature rises would be postponed by a mere 66 hours by the end of the century.

Contrary to what many think, the cost of both onshore and offshore wind power has not been coming down. On the contrary, it has been going up over the past decade. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged this in its most recent renewable-energy report. Likewise, the U.K. Energy Research Center laments that wind-power costs have “risen significantly since the mid-2000’s.”

Wind is already close to reaching its zenith in bang per buck. Much of the low-hanging fruit — places where it is windy and sparsely inhabited — has been picked. Every new site gets more expensive, less productive and more burdensome on the locals. That’s true of oil too, of course. But oil has a much longer productivity cycle and produces a lot more energy.

Lomborg suggests we’d be better off using the newest natural gas plants, which would reduce emissions by 20% but could provide most of our energy cheaply. Don’t discount the value of “cheap” in that equation: every dollar we spend on a wind farm is a dollar we can’t spend on research and development of technologies that really will make a difference.

The fact is that alternative energy is still not and maybe never will be ready to power our civilization. It can contribute around the edges. But unless there is a major technological change, it remains a sideshow.