Living without electricity for a while helps to focus the mind on how we rely on our infrastructure and our ability—or lack thereof—to make reasoned choices about that reliance. Hurricane Irene swept up the mid-Atlantic coast on a weekend, likely reducing the storm’s impact on most businesses. Forecasters did a nice job, giving plenty of warning of the approaching winds and rain, and many people seem to have been prepared for some inconvenience. The hurricane’s actual path probably reduced the amount of damage at actually occurred, at least until the eye of the storm went inland and through New England to produce devastating floods.
Even so, disruption was extensive. Amid blowing winds and a torrential downpour, the power went out at my house at about 3 am Sunday morning. A neighbor reported seeing the flashes of what we assumed to be the pole-mounted equipment blowing as downed branches and trees shorted out the overhead wires. Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), the utility serving us, reported that some 750,000 of its 1.23 million customers in the region lost service. The public relations folks claim that crews have been brought in from as far away as Kentucky to help with repairs.
At home and still without power more than 72 hours later, I am able to use my laptop and communicate with the world thanks to cellular telephone service and 100 feet of extension cord plugged into my neighbor’s house across the street. His side of the block did not fail. We plugged in the fridge, have a gas range and good supply of candles; I must admit that many others are suffering much more than we are at the moment.
At least three aspects of the situation nevertheless bother me.
First there is the customer service. While BGE messages to customers claim they are working “around the clock,” local news reports that the repair crews shut down for the evening at 8 pm; the statistics reported for restorations of power show clearly there was no overnight progress. Four days since BGE claims to have started storm operations, more than 20 percent of customers who lost power are still in the dark. Our local food market could not open and had to throw away thousands of dollars’ worth of spoiled goods. The planned Monday opening for the city’s schools had to be pushed back to Wednesday. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect the utility to work around the clock to restore full service. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect that parts and materials should be available within a 2-day period from other parts of the continent to accommodate these foreseeable emergency demands. Yet I cannot take my business elsewhere and there is no apparent way that failures of customer service will influence the company’s profitability or its executives’ income.
Second is the facility system. Electricity is delivered to my city neighborhood and much of the region by overhead wires. Many storms far short of hurricane intensity cause frequent power interruptions. (To the BGE’s credit, my impression is such outages tend to be fixed within 4 to 6 hours, regardless of when and under what weather conditions they occur; this seems to me a reasonable standard. Why are utilities and other infrastructure providers not required to make their performance statistics public, with standardized definitions and measurments?) While my definitely-leafy part of the city is less dense than many, I do not really understand why the poles have not been retired and the wires placed underground. I know the initial cost would be high, but I not convinced it would not be more than offset by the avoidable out-of-pocket and inconvenience costs I pay for recurring outages and reductions in the utility’s maintenance expenses. I suspect that the idea of moving to underground installations throughout the city is made unattractive by utility accounting and regulatory systems (increased investment in fixed capital), not to mention the public-relations and political headaches of using cutting into city streets or securing private easements and connecting to each house and shop. Nevertheless, I believe we should not have to consolidate to Manhattan-style densities to warrant the investment.
Finally, there is the thought of what the future may hold. If costs for such new technologies as fuel cells, photovoltaic installations, and wind-powered generators continue to decline, as I expect they will, I think small customers located in less-dense areas will decide to cut their ties to the power grid. Large corporate utilities will deal primarily with large consumers, whether they be businesses or multi-unit residential cooperatives and condominiums. A future in which a large fraction of households can meet their domestic energy demands from locally-supplied sun, breezes, and digested grass clippings and leaf collection is arguably more sustainable than what we now have, but it does imply maintaining what many people now call “sprawl.”