By Klaus Philipsen
2:01 PM EDT, July 11, 2012
On the ninth day after the June 29 storm, we learned from a Sun story titled "Past storms, future threats" that according to BGE, burying overhead lines would be "wildly expensive" and that derecho storms are really rare, as are five-foot snowstorms or hurricanes or what have you. However, here's what really matters: Resulting power outages are not rare at all. So, what the article tells us is:
•some think that these events will happen more often, thanks to climate change (per the disaster consultant);
•distribution lines and not transmission lines are the problem (per an organization named Power Perfect);
•Naperville, Ill., cut its power outage time from two hours per year to 20 minutes with a 20-year undergrounding plan (also from Power Perfect);
•Maryland has required underground wires for new subdivisions since "the early seventies" (per BGE Vice President A. Christopher Burton).
It appears that — like the power lines that so many trees toppled onto in the recent storm — all these statements still remain pretty much on the surface. It seems necessary to dig deeper, by asking a few pertinent questions:
•Do we also have statistics of power outage time per customer per year, like Naperville? What are the numbers over the years? Have they gone up, as the global warming theory would suggest? Or, if these numbers don't exist, why don't they — and what would it take to get them published from now on?
•Do BGE's 9,000 miles of overhead lines include the reliable transmission lines? And if so, how many miles of the more-relevant distribution lines do we have?
•Where are the distribution lines with the most households per mile? Just as 70 percent of all development occurs within the designated growth areas but the other 30 percent gobbles up most of the land, it stands to reason that similar proportions apply to power lines. It makes no sense to treat all 9,000 miles of lines alike. Future investment in underground wiring should be concentrated where efficiency and benefit are highest. If that would include only 30 percent of those pesky lines, "wildly expensive" would be cut by two-thirds.
•What about existing underground lines? If every new subdivision since the early 1970s really has underground lines (as Mr. Burton says is required), wouldn't a ton of wires already be underground, given that the amount of land developed since 1970 is larger than the area of all land developed before 1970? Why, then, were 62 percent of BGE's customers out of power in each of the past two big storms (about 740,000 customers of a total of 1.2 million)? Were underground services also damaged? Or is the post-1970 underground rule not strictly applied?
•Oh, and about Naperville: What exactly was their long-range undergrounding strategy, and who came up with it? The utility? How did they pay for it? Did it really cost $1 million per mile to do this (which BGE gives as the low estimate for undergrounding)?
•Utilities: In that big competition between Pepco and BGE for the governor's kick up their behind, who is ahead? Who restored power faster and more resourcefully — and how and why?
•What do the sale of BGE to Constellation and the sale of Constellation to Exelon mean for investments in the local grid infrastructure?
•Overhead line design: Priceless is The Sun's own photo illustrating the June 8 article, a lineman on top of a ladder leaning against a rickety wooden pole loaded up with a transformer, house connections, cable and telephone wires. The worker is trying to drill a hole into the top portion of the pole, presumably to attach yet another contraption on the already overburdened pole. Shouldn't we ask ourselves: Even if we would have to keep most wires overhead, isn't there a more reliable way to do this than this tangled mess, where a bolt of lightning or a random squirrel can short out the transformer and bring down the whole line?
The utilities act like the owner of a car who replaces the brake pads only after he crashes. Why should we allow them to kick the can further and further down the road, storm after storm?
As a planner, I am interested to know the true cost of sprawl, including the power grid as well as the implications for resilience against climate change. As an architect, I have designed streetscapes including the aesthetic aspect of undergrounding of a half-mile of ugly overhead lines in Catonsville's commercial district.
But mostly, I like to get to the bottom of these issues as a consumer who has experienced more than a dozen power outages, lost thousands of dollars to water damage resulting from powerless sump pumps and warming refrigerators and who subsequently invested thousands more in a hardwired generator. All of these bad experiences fall into the last 20 years of my life as a BGE customer in an older suburb, where power lines run overhead through trees. None of the power outages fall into the 42 years before that, when I lived in cities or in suburbs with underground power lines. Coincidence?
I did some of my own math: Let's say I lost 20 grand to the sloppy power grid in 20 years, or $1,000 per year. That would be roughly 8 cents for each kilowatt-hour used in those years. If all 1.2 million customers had paid only half of that — say, a 4-cents-per-kWh surcharge — then BGE would have collected $12 billion in those 20 years. That is a nice chunk toward "wildly expensive," even if actual numbers are probably different and folks may not go for a 4-cent surcharge, at first. The calculation shows, though, that together and over time, we could do a lot better and eventually would all start saving. There are plenty of countries and places that can show us how.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, is the president of ArchPlan Inc. Philipsen Architects in Baltimore and co-chairman of the Urban Design Committee AIA Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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