Hundreds of thousands from Maine to Michigan were plunged into darkness as the result of the late December ice storm.
People shivered in the dark. Running generators in enclosed spaces, some died or became seriously ill from breathing carbon monoxide.
With all the focus on modernizing the electric system in recent years, you might have thought that storm-caused outages, especially during the winter, would have been drastically reduced.
But, while the country has been concerned about creating competition among generators, promoting renewable sources and upgrading the transmission grid, government and regulators have paid little attention to the lines bringing power to homes and businesses.
In short, the big picture has been about improving economics and the environment and has overlooked the more basic public health and safety issues of local poles and wires.
The emphasis has been on creating competition in the electric business. Government no longer regulates who gets into the business of generating electricity.
The only generation receiving government backing is renewable power, which is supposed to produce a better environment and less reliance on fossil fuels, especially imports from politically sensitive places like the Middle East or Venezuela.
The electric grid has to remain reliable when generators are added, so new federally mandated agencies have sweeping authority to require new transmission lines. Nobody seems overly concerned about the billions in added costs rolled into customers’ rates.
All of this may help meet long-term goals that will make the U.S. more energy independent and, as the world’s largest power consumer, more efficient and less destructive of the environment.
But what help is there for the customer who loses electricity when lines come down under the weight of ice or tree branches?
The prevailing attitude seems to be if you choose to live where there are exposed power lines, you must accept the risk of power outages.
Not only do ice storms cause massive cuts in service, but many other storms each year leave electric customers without service for hours or days.
Very little has changed in the distribution system, the poles and wires that bring power from the grid to the customer, from the time of Thomas Edison.
Today, just as more than a century ago, most power outside of cities is delivered on uninsulated, bare wires at the top of utility poles. If a tree falls onto a line, that frail and sometimes old wire is broken, interrupting power until a crew can reach the break and repair it.
Almost no utility now budgets enough for repairing all breaks in its lines quickly. People, especially those near the end of the line, must wait, sometimes for several days. The more remote you are, the later your line is repaired.
Regulatory supervision over distribution lines is a state matter. Usually state regulators try to get utilities to keep up with their tree trimming so branches will not contact the bare lines, but they do little more.
The most frequently suggested remedy is to put the lines underground, eliminating storm-caused outages.
The most obvious problem with this solution is its cost, as much as ten times more than stringing lines from poles.
In fact, if we decided we truly want to drastically reduce storm-caused losses of power, it will inevitably cost more.
But it is worth at least asking the question if taxpayers or ratepayers are willing to pay more or shift utility spending from transmission to local distribution systems rather than simply assuming they don’t.
In the midst of all the spending on the latest ideas to improve the industry, utilities, the states or even the federal government might allocates some money spent on high voltage wires to investigating how to improve the delivery of electricity.
While the results of such a study cannot be predicted, some ideas might be worth considering.
How about “distributed generation,” where small generators could be placed closer to relatively isolated groups of customers? Perhaps such generators could be reserved only for emergency use.
Today some people buy their own generators, but many people cannot afford that investment. Should there be utility-owned small generators, capable of serving groups of customers on outlying roads?
What about increased use of insulated lines, perhaps supported by cable? This so-called “tree wire” would be much less vulnerable than today’s lines.
And, in some locations, underground lines should be required to be part of a comprehensive reliability upgrade to the distribution system.
Maybe none of these is the right idea. The right idea would certainly be to begin looking for something better than today’s storm-tossed distribution system.