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After Recent US Storms, Why Are Millions Still Without Power? 813

Hugh Pickens points out a report from Jamie Smith Hopkins that "The unusual nature of the 'derecho' is complicating efforts to get everyone's much-needed air conditioning up and running again as more than 1.4 million people from Illinois to Virginia still remain without power and power companies warn some customers could be without power for the rest of the week in the worst hit areas. Utilities don't have enough staff to handle severe-storm outages – the expense would send rates soaring – so they rely on out-of-state utilities to send help, says Stephen Woerner, Baltimore Gas and Electric's (BGE) chief operating officer. Hurricane forecasts offer enough advanced warning for utilities to 'pre-mobilize' and get the out-of-state assistance in place but the forecast for Friday's walloping wind was merely scattered thunderstorms. 'No utility was prepared for what we saw in terms of having staff available that first day,' says Woerner. But is it a given that a strong storm would cause this magnitude of damage to the electricity grid? 'Even without pursuing the extremely expensive option of burying all of the region's electrical lines, the utilities can and do take steps between bouts of severe weather to prevent outages,' writes the Baltimore Sun, adding that consumer advocates are concerned that utilities invest sufficiently in preventive maintenance. 'Tree trimming and replacement of old infrastructure — particularly in areas that have been shown to be vulnerable to previous storms — helps prevent outages.'"
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After Recent US Storms, Why Are Millions Still Without Power?

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  • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:09AM (#40527193)

    Goddamn, napping on a man lift next to a downed livewire?!?! Who DOES that?!?!?

  • by udoschuermann ( 158146 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:12AM (#40527251) Homepage

    It's because we never bother to maintain our infrastructure. We build bridges and let 'em fall down. We hang power lines off wooden poles, and never bother burying them. We sort of fix it when it breaks, but then it breaks again, but we don't really learn from it.

    • by chemicaldave ( 1776600 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:31AM (#40527535)
      In other words: cutting costs
    • by Dcnjoe60 ( 682885 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:53AM (#40527871)

      It's because we never bother to maintain our infrastructure. We build bridges and let 'em fall down. We hang power lines off wooden poles, and never bother burying them. We sort of fix it when it breaks, but then it breaks again, but we don't really learn from it.

      While what you say is true, the real problem this time was that the utilities were caught off guard. When they know a major storm, particularly something with hurricane strength winds, is coming, they marshal their resources ahead of time. Normally for a hurricane they have a week or so to prepare for it and to have extra crews and equipment on stand-by for the repairs/clean up. But this storm came without warning and therefore they are having to repair and marshal resources at the same time. Add to that the problem that most of the states that loan equipment and workers to the east coast for this type of work were also hit by the same storm.

      In the end, while improving infrastructure is a needed thing, it isn't the cause of this delay in getting power back on.

      • You are right about the cause of delays if this were an isolated instance, but storms are not freak events, they happen all the time. Without even mentioning the smaller outages, we often lose power for extended periods of time (35 hours this time, 48 hours the year before, etc.) Each time this happens there are plenty of people who are looking at longer (week-long) outages.

        In other words, this is not the first time this happened, but the next time it does and hundreds of thousands are without power for day

  • Pipelining (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:16AM (#40527293)

    Utility rate regulation is a system of assuring the investors of their return in return for doing something the public wants done. US Utility Rate Regulation used to be aimed at making sure that the maximum generation capacity was present with adequate return for lines and repairs etc. Under the George W Bush administration this regulation shifted towards "Pipeline" design for power sales. This stripped the local Coop or supply company of its revenue for service and maintainence. Further changes in regulation changed the position of the large generators so that they have little or no incentive to build new facilities. As such the USA is losing its grid to a very finely tuned profit machine that has no instinct for self preservation. Everything is now and nothing is tomorrow. The result is that the USA is fast sinking into a 3rd world power grid with massive failures and stunningly stupid management. The power rating system optimizes the push towards insufficient demand and planned brownouts. The 1930's regulation design caused the largest expansion and most robust utility system in the world. The 2000's are seeing this systematically dismantled in favor of "deregulation" which in this case is a farce because the regulation exists this is only a matter of how it is designed.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      As such the USA is losing its grid to a very finely tuned profit machine that has no instinct for self preservation. Everything is now and nothing is tomorrow.

      That's not true at all. After the utilities refused to do the repair and maintenance they were paid for by consumers, they then went to congress for additional funding. Congress happily granted massive upcharges and taxes for to perform the repairs they refused to do the first time and had already been paid for. As a result, the utilities took the extra cash and tax revenue and refused to do the work a second time. They are now lobbying for a new round of taxes, rate increases, and grants to perform the wor

    • Re:Pipelining (Score:5, Informative)

      by GreenTom ( 1352587 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @12:34PM (#40529681)
      I work in this industry, and think you're misunderstanding a lot of things about deregulation. Electricity deregulation affected power plants, power purchases, and to some extent, the high-voltage transmission system. The local distribution system, which is what this storm seems to have hit, is still very much traditionally regulated in nearly all areas. The "EDC" (electricity delivery company, what most people think of as their utility) owns the wires. EDCs still operate under rates that are generally set by state government, and trust me, they are always under scrutiny. Also, an EDC doesn't really have much of a profit motive here: anything they spend on extra maintenance will be passed on to ratepayers, and anything they save by shirking maintenance will end up going back to ratepayers.

      Coops and Municipal utilities are nearly entirely exempted from deregulation, and run much the same as they did in the 1930s.

      In any event, this storm is a good natural test of your hypothesis: some of the affected states (Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey) are entirely deregulated, and some (West Virginia, Tennessee, the Carolina) are traditionally regulated. Virginia is somewhere in the middle.
  • by bradley13 ( 1118935 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:17AM (#40527325) Homepage

    Here in Europe, the news reports a very simple reason: a totally dilapidated infrastructure. Most power wires still hanging off of poles, subject to lightning, wind and falling trees. Decades-old transformers and switching stations that fail catastrophically, and sometimes cause cascading failures.

    I haven't lived on the East Coast for decades - any power engineers want to comment on the truth or falsity of these reports?

    • by Albanach ( 527650 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:25AM (#40527441) Homepage

      On moving to the States (East Coast) from Europe I was pretty surprised by the sheer volume of electricity cables strung in the air. For cost reasons it makes sense for the main backbone cables to be on pylons, but new build homes in cities seem to have all manner of cables strung from the nearest pole.

      Not only is this unsightly, but it's a nightmare in a situation like this. Residential areas are full of trees. The lines themselves are exposed to ice accumulation in the winter and winds and lightning at other times. Power lines go down taking out small numbers of homes, but require substantial manpower to repair.

      These lines should have been buried when the homes were built. Doing it retrospectively will, as the OP suggests, cost a fortune.

      • by yodleboy ( 982200 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:48AM (#40527785)
        Yeah, this above ground stuff is for the birds. I moved from an older neighborhood with above ground utilities to a newer area in the suburbs with buried. It's quite a relief to not have to worry about branches/kites/vehicles hitting power lines and shorting the entire neighborhood. We pretty much assumed any major storm or high winds would lead to an outage. The cable service also ran above ground and for some reason squirrels love to eat the casing. I had internet and tv outages 2 or 3 times due to that one. Aesthetically, it's nice not to have all this crap overhead too.

        I would have thought with the age of most European cities that above ground would be more common, that seems to be the excuse around these parts "well, that's just the way they did it back then. live with it." So if buried power in Europe is so much more common, what's the reason for that? Have power lines always been buried there? Was it done after WW2 since everything had to rebuilt anyway? Or did most countries just say "screw these ugly poles and wires" and eat the expense of burying the lines?
        • by chthon ( 580889 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @11:06AM (#40528135) Homepage Journal

          I am from Belgium, and I think that the move to burying lines underground started here in the 70's for new developments.

          When we moved in '78, we were connected to a grid underground, but the other end of the street, which was much older wasn't.

          There is still cleaning up being done. In 2006 we moved to a new house in an old street, and for the new development, one quarter of the street electricity was buried underground, but only this year the last remains of utility poles have been replaced by underground connections. This is, however, in a small village. In our previous house, in a more populated area, the electricity was already long underground.

          Such works are mostly done when the sidewalks need to be replaced e.g., or when the sewage system needs an overhaul.

        • by Zencyde ( 850968 )
          Squirrels like the casing because they make it using peanut oil, I've heard. Might be worth looking it up, though. ;)
      • by Jaysyn ( 203771 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @12:42PM (#40529871) Homepage Journal

        Telecom network designer here. I can't vouch for power companies, but as far as communications lines, it really is that much cheaper to put them up a pole that you already own or a paying a pittance of a lease for then to bury them & have to deal with:

        a.) Design. The poles are already there & in some instance they are maintained by a different company entirely. Locating existing UG utilities is expensive. Some counties in Florida are now requiring GPR readings before they let you place anything. Ground penetrating radar &/ or LiDAR crews are expensive.

        b.) Permits (Railroad, DOT, City, County, & sometimes bridge or Dept of Environmental Protection) And they all want something different on their permits.

        b.) Construction. Most companies contract out boring. Directional boring rigs aren't cheap to run. Conduit is more expensive to place than the metal strand that goes between poles. It's quite literally 4 times more expensive to place UG plant than aerial plant & that is before the before the cost of the above items is taken into consideration.

        Also, you really can't compare Europe to the USA. Europe is tiny & crammed. We are very, very spread out. Case in point, the *city* I live in is just slightly smaller than Luxembourg.

    • by alen ( 225700 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:32AM (#40527559)

      unlike europe that has gone to war with each other every 50 years or so for the last 1000 years, the US hasn't been bombed. in some cases there has never been a reason to build new infrastructure like in the bombed out post WW2 remains of europe

    • by MatthiasF ( 1853064 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:45AM (#40527741)
      Where in Europe, if I may ask?

      While I was in eastern France, Italy and even Germany, I saw plenty of power lines on poles in rural areas, so I doubt this is an American problem.England, less so, but mostly because I never left London.

      For instance, storms last year brought down a lot of trees in northern France that caused massive power outages as well. []

      I think this is less a case of "dilapidated infrastructure" and more a case of EURO vs USA put downs. I should point out that I've never seen a news report here in the US blaming European incompetence when a storm knocks out power.

      We have the good sense to blame the storm. A storm in this particular situation was way under-estimated.
  • Follow FPL's lead (Score:4, Interesting)

    by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:18AM (#40527337)

    In Florida since we get nasty storms all of the time the power companies have full time crews that trim trees near power lines. They are going to have to do it anyway when a storm comes and it's easier to do it when the weather is nice for 3/4 of the year than when the storms come in the heat and humidity of the summer. All you have to do is call them up to take a look at a tree near their lines and they will take a look and trim it if needed.

    The rest of the country might not get this weather often enough to spend the time to maintain the trees so when a freak storm comes by you not only have had lots of tree growth but it's growth that hasn't been subjected to high winds. []

    • by muridae ( 966931 )
      Trimming sick trees works great. Except for those times when even healthy trees are knocked sideways. Or when the top of every tree is sheered off at the same height, and those pieces go flying.
  • by Skater ( 41976 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:19AM (#40527349) Homepage Journal

    As someone who was without power from Friday night to yesterday afternoon in Maryland (served by BG&E), I get that this was bad storm and outages are probably inevitable. My problem is: Why are there so many of these outages?

    I moved to my current residence in 2006 and there have been at least 4 outages lasting longer than 24 hours. I think I'm missing one in that count, but I didn't want to put it down without remembering it better. But we've had one of these 24+ hour outages each of the last three years.

    When I step outside during an outage, I'm greeted with the sound of generators all around me (including my own, but it's quiet enough that I hear several others over it). Why do we all have generators? Because we need them so frequently! I bet if I did a poll, half the neighbors would either have a generator or have power from someone that does. And a good portion of the rest probably have friends or family far enough that they might have power, but near enough to make staying at their place feasible. water works fine. My natural gas service works fine - we were able to take hot showers throughout the outage. My FiOS worked fine after I hooked it to the generator. All of those things have one thing in common: the lines are buried. It's sad that my internet service is more reliable than my electricity. If it's so expensive to bury wires, how come Verizon just did it a couple years ago when they installed FiOS?

    BG&E did a "reliability improvement plan" in our city a year or two ago, moving some main wires underground. It seems to have cut down on the shorter power outages, but no such luck for the longer outages. We're tired of it. My wife and I are going to write BG&E a nice letter that basically asks "WTF?" I plan to CC the city council and local papers as well.

  • when you add an extra leap second...
  • by dslmodem ( 733085 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:23AM (#40527401) Journal
    When I first came to US, I was shocked to see those wood utility poles. It is so ancient. There are many excuses for keeping those. People need to go to some developing countries, particularly BRIC, to take a look at their infrastructures. Where is the $$ for change?
  • by TorrentFox ( 1046862 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:23AM (#40527403)

    I sat in on a town hall meeting where JCP&L fumbled majorly in explaining themselves after taking a week or more to restore power in northern NJ. They gave all manner of excuses, and the meeting attendees pointed out endless examples of dead branches hanging over wires. Their policy? Then don't touch the branch unless the branch is *hanging* on the wire. How's that for foresight? The moment a strong wind kicks up, they lose power. They're so fucking cheap that they fired all their linemen, and now out-of-state emergency support has become the ONLY support.

    Shame on them.

  • Big deal (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Nature happens. You guys are knee'jerk reacting. Next story.

  • My home state of CT had two storms that took out power to most of the state for over a week just last year. Get on our level.

    On a serious note, it's kind of sad to see that even after our horrendous storms and massive consumer backlash against CL&P's near-monopoly, there are still power companies out there acting like it could never happen to them, not having a contingency plan for the worst case scenario.

  • by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:28AM (#40527497) Homepage

    I lose electrical power at least once a year. Sometimes it's just a few blocks, sometimes it's a quarter of the city. It usually happens during thunder storms, but once in a while it happens for no apparent reason. It usually takes several hours for it to be restored. This is in a city of 200,000 in the Midwest. Several decades ago, this was acceptable; electricity was a convenience that gave us light and maybe ran some of our home appliances. But today it is essential to our daily lives; too many things now require electricity to work. And yet... we're still using the same basic infrastructure that my grandparents got their electricity from during the Great Depression.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

      If electricity is essential to your daily life, you might want to seriously consider changing your life. I definitely appreciate the convenience of electricity, and I wouldn't get a whole lot of work done if it went out for an extended period of time, but my life certainly wouldn't be in danger, and I'd even be entertained.

  • by alen ( 225700 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:28AM (#40527499)

    it's like the wal mart attitude of just buy the cheapest no matter what the hidden costs are of buying more products to make up for the crappy cheapest product in the first place

    same here. dollar wise for the initial costs its cheaper to put up overhead wires. and the repair costs are probably low enough that digging holes is always too expensive.

    and the fact that when you get to the republican areas everyone is always against higher taxes so they make due with crappy infrastructure

    • by dunezone ( 899268 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:59AM (#40527981) Journal

      and the fact that when you get to the republican areas everyone is always against higher taxes

      My girlfriends hometown has a public pool that unfortunately needs extensive repairs because its leaking water. The town said it could fix it by raising taxes and of course there was a huge uproar. Then the town said they could fix it by charging people to use the pool, once again more uproar. Then someone discussed buying the pool but said he would have to charge three times as much on admission fees compared to the public fee to make it profitable. And you guessed it the people were still angry.

      Its like people expect all these municipals and public services to paid off by money that comes out of thin air.

    • I live in a Democratic area. We have high taxes, and our infrastructure is still crappy. Just because we're being soaked for taxes doesn't guarantee that they'll be used to repair our infrastructure.

  • by zerosomething ( 1353609 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:29AM (#40527515) Homepage
    Remove regulatory barriers to small private, personal and community power generation systems and solve this problem!
  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:31AM (#40527533) Homepage
    The US electric grid is a product of history much more than planning with bits tacked on or merged as short-term goals dictated without much in the way of long-term planning. (There are actually three main US grids, one for the East, one for the West and one for Texas). Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote an excellent book, "Beforee the Lights Go Out," which is about the grid and related issues that discusses this and how it creates a lot of these problems and what we can do about it. I highly recommend it.
  • by ( 1238654 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:32AM (#40527563)

    Seriously. Look at a map for any densely populated urban area, and consider the scale and complexity any utility provider must face. The problem is enormous and the adverse conditions affecting the utility are highly varied. Also consider that it makes no sense for these utility providers to retain standing armies of workers and equipment to react to rare events.

    People need to grow up, and understand that sometimes they will be left without the conveniences of modern life. It is incumbent upon each of us to be prepared for these difficult times when we might have to go a full 48 hours without being able to watch The Bachelorette.

  • by pesho ( 843750 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @10:41AM (#40527683)
    Because quick profits and millisecond gains are the king in US. The utilities are trying to save both on infrastructure and maintenance. Having the power lines been buried, like in pretty much every first world country, they would have had a lot less problems from a little wind. I am pretty sure that the next post would be how this is too expensive because of the 'low' population density and the 'rural' populations and I call this complete bollocks. The utility poles are as prevalent in urban areas as they are out in the country. So, you saved on infrastructure and this is probably OK, but then you need to maintain it. And this means keeping the trees away from the poles, not overloading the wooden poles to the point where a little wind will snap them and replacing them before they rot completely away. Now this makes the cheap infrastructure a lot more expensive, unless you skip on the maintenance, which is what most utilities cheerfully do. This is by no means the only utilities fault. Any investment cost will need to be passed to the consumers and they will have none of it.
  • by AB3A ( 192265 ) on Tuesday July 03, 2012 @11:49AM (#40528907) Homepage Journal

    I live in central Maryland. There is more to this than just a Derecho. We get every two to three years. They're not unheard of.

    We had a mild winter and a cool spring. The winter did not have any significant snow or ice. So weak tree limbs didn't come down. There weren't many significant thunderstorms in the spring either, so no significant dead wood fell because of that. Here we are in early summer, and we get the first major storm of the season and all that weak and dying wood that hasn't been cleared out of the trees comes down at once. In many cases it takes the whole damned tree down. This wouldn't have been a big deal if it had been spread over a few storms here and there, but instead it happened all at once.

    In so many ways, this was a perfect storm...

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