Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Power to the people

So the storm formerly known as Hurricane Sandy (now the much less-impressive sounding Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy) is, as anyone with an Internet connection or an East Coast mailing address can tell, knocking out power to huge numbers of customers. LINK

Living overseas, I have heard a lot of people wonder, "why on earth do people in the richest country on earth have to deal with power outages during storms." This, apparently, is not common in most other developed countries.

The bottom-line answer is simple: cost. With estimates that burying power lines runs up to $15 million per mile, wind-proofing your power grid can be pretty pricey.

But it's a little more complex than that. It's not just that it would cost the power companies and their customers money to bury power lines. It's also that those companies have determined that it's actually cheaper for them to string lines from poles--and periodically repair them--than to bury them and repair them less often.

Burying lines to begin with is cheaper; you're not replacing anything, you're just building infrastructure, and as it's likely there's a road being built nearby, stuff like excavation cost is less prohibitive. That's why newer communities tend to have buried power infrastructure. (And places like Hong Kong, for instance, which saw an explosion of building in the last 50 years, are ahead of the game. No power outages during Vicente!)

Additionally, outside of the Pacific and South Asia, which are next to huge bodies of storm-generating water, you just don't see the volume of severe weather in other countries that you do in the U.S. that you see in other countries. A meteorologist could explain the "why" better than I; the effect, however, is that the country's power grid takes more of a beating than other places. And the fact that the country is so large--and population so spread out, outside of dense cities--contributes again to the cost-benefit analysis of using power poles rather than buried lines. It also goes without saying that the U.S. doesn't always do a great job of recognizing the potential for disaster.

The end result? The richest country in the world deals with a lot of storm-caused blackouts. That might be the most cost-effective way to handle power transmission, but judging by the way things are going for the folks in New York today, I'm not sure it's the most customer-friendly.


Pietro Devon said...

what about the other societal costs of a blackout? there are many more expenses caused by a blackout than just replacing power lines.

Gerry said...

of course! but those aren't the costs that the companies that own the lines are considering.

Eric Grimes said...

Having never traveled off this island called North America (I know, it makes me sad too), I never considered that power poles may not be common-place elsewhere.

This also reminds me of a scene in the Terry Zwigoff movie *Crumb* when the legendary illustrator mentions keeping a book of town-space reference photos precisely to allow him to recreate such mundanity in his comics in order to give that subliminal, background, (American) feel. He has been an expatriate in France for some years now.
(STELLAR www.imdb.com/title/tt0109508/ )