Monday, November 7, 2011

Snow, Trees, and Wires

The surprise October snowstorm in the northeast reminds me of a trip home to New England several years ago, when I arrived in the midst of the "worst ice storm in ten years."  (The person traveling with me--from a more southern sunny state--was appalled to learn that this was only the worst in ten years, not one-hundred years.)  About an hour after I arrived (and after the state had closed all of the highways leading to my destination) the electricity promptly went out and did not come back on until approximately two weeks later. 

The problem comes down to trees and wires.  When ice coats trees or wires, or snow falls on trees with leaves, the trees of course fall on wires or simply sag so much that they hit the wires and cause an outage.  This has led to an ongoing struggle for utility companies, which often overzealously cut trees away from the wires to avoid outages and comply with North American Electric Reliability Corporation reliability standards--which are now mandatory.  Alternatively, the companies don't cut as many trees in response to environmental concerns or out of sheer laziness or cost concerns--or even if they do cut them, the trees manage to fall on the wires anyway.  Several questions thus arise. First, why not bury the wires?  The American Transmission Company claims that "[i]nstallation costs for underground transmission lines can cost up to 10 times as much as an equivalent overhead line," although this does not speak to the millions of dollars invested in overhead line repairs after storms.   Scott Sklar of the The Stella Group, Ltd., also claims, however, that "buried power lines make them more suscept[i]ble to damage from floods, earthquakes mudslides and can limit how quickly they can be repaired." 

If neither burying the lines nor keeping them above ground works (not to mention the enormous environmental impacts of constructing the lines), why don't we move to distributed generation, wherein we all have enough small solar panels or wind turbines to power our own homes?  With the huge centralized power plants and thousands of miles of lines that we've already built, we've dug our way into an infrastructural trench that's hard to escape.  Some states also still don't have net metering to pay distributed generators for the power that they feed back into the grid, and installing personal energy infrastructure is expensive.  I'd argue, though, that rather than spending all of this money continuing to repair damaged transmission lines or burying them, we should invest it in distributed energy solutions. A consultant for the Department of Energy agrees, pointing out that a smarter grid, which would incorporate distributed generation, would allow neighborhoods to keep their lights on when the larger grid went down (somewhat similar to the microgrids discussed in Sara Bronin's excellent piece).  Whether for reasons of a secure electric supply or a move from fossil fuels, it's time to consider distributed generation more seriously.

-Hannah Wiseman

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