Power Struggle

And Hurricane Irene takes the electric poles and pylons by storm... yet again

As a child growing up in upstate New York, I remember vividly the nights the power went out. It was like magic: candlelit evenings on the porch, the whole neighbourhood out and about. “Your power out, too?” became a perfect conversation starter. The answer was almost certainly yes.

I was back visiting the family in the northern Catskill Mountains in late August, when Hurricane Irene arrived. Well alerted, everyone shifted into high gear: evacuation measures in the lowlands, bulk food shopping for the high ground; ice chests and camping stoves, bottled water, canned goods, toilet paper. Some affluent homeowners had equipped themselves with free-standing generators for just these kinds of situations.

When the storms hit, they knew, power lines and electric poles would be hit with falling trees and battered by 60 mph winds, and pounding rains would cause flooding severe enough to root up trees and poles together. I remember being impressed by the calm with which family and friends accepted these losses of power that, like blizzards in winter, were simply another routine act of nature. Every major tropical storm or blizzard costs the United States between $2 and $10 billion.

Since the 1950s, regions across Central and Western Europe have launched projects to bury electrical power lines and replace the vulnerable wooden or concrete masts – an investment that has already saved citizens, the state, local and federal governments millions annually. Most cities and towns now have underground power lines that are estimated to have paid for themselves in 5-10 years.

In Germany, all telephone cables, as well as many power lines, are now underground or in insulated above-ground carriers. It wasn’t cheap, but no one misses the telephone poles and there are far fewer power outages due to weather conditions. In the 1970s the West German digging had been completed and East Germany followed in the 1990s.

In Austria there have been ups and downs in the dispute over whether to bury as many power lines as possible, or whether it is worth the money. Low and medium voltage lines are most secure underground, while many believe it makes sense to leave high voltage wires above ground with insulation. A proposal to bury high voltage lines was a great point of discussion at the underground cable convention in Vienna in 2010, and many see it essential to creating a Europe-wide electricity network.

Salzburg, however, has become Austria’s model region; with an abundance of underground cables, it has the highest electrical security in Europe. In Tyrol and South Tyrol, people took to the streets last year to protest a proposed power line over the Alps to Italy.  “Leaving our imprint in nature cannot be compensated with money,” said the majorty of protestors, but the project is usually long-term and costly. Even the UK, which has been a straggler, is now also moving power lines underground.

The U.S. and Japan are alone among developed countries who have made no moves in this direction. Experts in Japan say the earthquakes and storms make the underground cables close to impossible to install and replace. In the United States, however, no such argument holds up in most areas and the savings over time would be enormous.

Shortly after Irene, Mayor Bloomberg estimated damage costs of $7-13 billion, mostly flooding and wind damage. And even in areas where the physical damages were not significant, the power outages alone for homes and businesses cost in the billions of dollars. By burying the cables, these losses could become a thing of the past, or at least far less frequent and wide-spread.

Although, admittedly, we might never meet our neighbours.

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