Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 02, 2012

More severe weather and electrical power outages

BETHESDA, MD - JULY 1:  A Pepco employee works to stabilize power lines damaged in a massive storm that swept through the region Friday night, July 1, 2012 in Bethesda, Maryland. Although crews are at work repairing systems, there are still almost a million people in the greater Washington, DC area without power.Getty Images logoGETTY IMAGES 1 DAY AGOBETHESDA, MD - JULY 1: A Pepco employee works to stabilize power lines damaged in a massive storm that swept through the region Friday night, July 1, 2012 in Bethesda, Maryland. Although crews are at work repairing systems, there are still almost a million people in the greater Washington, DC area without power.

While people like Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli continue to argue against the existence of the phenomenon of "global warming," it appears that "storm events" are becoming "more violent," although there is no question that this could be a cycle.

Still, in my experience, rain storms in DC are much worse, on a more regular basis, from microbursts to derechos, compared to Michigan, where I grew up, although that could be a weather cycle issue admittedly.

Updated: today's Post has a story on the issue, "Storm rekindles questions about ‘undergrounding’ power lines," with some data about reliability and costs.

The "derecho" windstorm-thunderstorm was particularly violent in upper Northwest DC and many trees and power lines were down, traffic signals were (and are still) out and in the greater region, at the height of the problem one million households were without power.  Now PEPCO, the company active in DC and the Maryland suburbs, says that they can't guarantee everything will be fixed until Friday.

Now, for the most part, my particular household--even though Ward 4 has been hit hard--is fine.  We experienced less than one minute of power outage.  But half of the houses on our block, but behind us on Peabody Street, have been out of electricity since the storm (our next door neighbors saw the transformer blow, I didn't).

The Post has a story about people in Chevy Chase ("In Chevy Chase, the haves and have-nots") and sharing access to electric power from neighbors with to neighbors without.

On our block, we have a kind of "intimate anonymity"--I recognize our alley side neighbors well enough to wave when we see them, but I don't know them, I only talk to them a couple times/year.  We don't have a block club.  We know our neighbors on either side of us the best (and we are lucky, both households are totally awesome).

We'd probably offer electricity if asked, although we'd worry about the strength of our 80 year old house's electrical system, which occasionally trips circuit breakers as it is--and it would be about 200 feet from our electric box to the rear of the houses on the back side of our black.

Why not underground more electrical infrastructure?

From a "planning" standpoint, which is what this blog is about, the increased severity of weather and the resultant widespread power outages raises the issue of electrical infrastructure and how to provide the service.

In DC, in the so-called L'Enfant City, wire infrastructure is not allowed to be placed in the visible public space on face blocks, so electric lines are underground.  While not perfect and there are still outages in places like Capitol Hill from time to time, for the most part, the area doesn't haven't to worry about the impact of severe weather on their electric service.

There is the general issue of needing to upgrade infrastructure that is decades old and needs to be upgraded with increases in restaurants, apartment and condominium buildings, streetcars, etc.

Utility companies aren't incentivized to spend more money on more reliable distribution infrastructure to households and businesses

Still, I can't claim there is a better argument for more undergrounding of electrical distribution infrastructure than the current problems resulting from the most recent storm.

Electric utilities--Pepco is not exceptional in this--don't like to underground their infrastructure because it costs more and is harder to fix.  On the other hand, underground electrical infrastructure is generally much more reliable and less subject to outages.

What is the economic cost of 1 million households and businesses without power?

Reduced availability of slack and/or redundant resources to maintain infrastructure

I am not going to criticize Pepco and other firms for the fact that they just don't have crews and equipment waiting around on the off chance there will be a problem.  This is why they have mutual assistance agreements with other utility companies.  

But the basic problem is that in a world where there is increasingly "less financial slack" to have redundant assets--people and equipment--but instead to operate "lean" in every way, there is little allowance in the "supply chain" for responses to catastrophic events.  Instead, the only response is chaos-stoppage and eventually restarting as the system "reboots" after days or weeks of rebuilding and reconstruction (cf. the impact of the tsunami on the Japanese manufacturing sectors has been immense, even including a slow down in the provision of new subway cars to the WMATA system).

Because for the most part electric utilities are not responsible for the economic losses to customers that result from storms, this cost is not monetized, so the utility companies aren't "incentivized" to underground more of their infrastructure.

Clearly that needs to change.

Undergrounding would help save trees

More undergrounding would cut down on those complaints about Pepco butchering the tree infrastructure as well ("Pepco's Aggressive Tree Cutting" from the Montgomery Countryside Alliance), if more of the system in high population areas, was re-installed underground.

Image: Palisades Citizens Association.  (I bet these days they are complaining about power outages.)

Municipal/local government ownership and maintenance of electric distribution infrastructure as an option

Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner responded to other power outages by suggesting that the County purchase and operate the electricity distribution system, with the idea that without a profit motive, instead the "profits" could be directed to better maintenance and system improvements.  He was roundly criticized by business interests for this proposal, but I think in many respects, he was right.  See the past blog entries "Press piling on Montgomery County's utility dreams" and "More on utilities owned by local governments."

Although while there are many examples of superlative municipal and government-owned utilities, there are also many examples of horrid, corrupt, inefficient operation as well.

Then again, I guess you could say the same about the "investor-owned" utility companies as well.

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