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Maryland

Md. power outages raise question: why aren't lines underground?

Upon receiving word that scientists in Geneva had located the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle considered a basic building block of the universe, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted: "On the day we reserve to tell ourselves America is great — July 4 — Europe reminds us that we suck at science."

Later, the director of the Hayden Planetarium added, "You just wait Europe, science in America will rise again — some time this millennium."

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Sometime this millennium, could we just do something about the power lines?

We don't need a team of theoretical physicists for the job, just a couple of visionary engineers.

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On the day when scientists in Geneva came closer to understanding the universe, hundreds of thousands of families in the United States went without electricity — for the fifth consecutive day. And this, of course, was the scene in the middle of the nation's best-educated, most affluent region, between New York and Northern Virginia.

And 12 years into the 21st century.

Can't we do better than this? Aren't we the most advanced society on Earth, home to pioneers, innovators and wicked-cool video game developers?

We can program machines to brew our coffee at sunrise; we can speak on smart phones to people 5,000 miles away; we have an app for everything except cesarean section. But nothing works without electricity, and electricity still comes to us through a clumsy and unsightly system of wire and wood — thousands of miles of it.

Scientists and engineers long ago learned how to use nuclear reaction to make electricity, but we still deliver it by power lines slung from wooden poles. All this wire and wood is vulnerable to trees that fall in violent storms, tripping off a domino reaction of damage and the loss of life, commerce, productivity and millions in capital for repairs.

"In the 32 years I lived in Germany, I don't recall a single outage longer than a couple of hours," Klaus Philipsen, the Baltimore architect, said the other day. "Any outages were years apart. They've got hotter and more violent weather over there now as well — just last weekend a lot of it — but not millions of people out of power for days. This is ridiculous. And when one sees how the lines are strung and fixed, it is as if we are somewhere in a developing country."

Pardon me while I repeat what I said last September, after the remnants of Hurricane Irene caused power outages to more than 750,000 Maryland households and businesses, and again in Tuesday's column about weather's "new normal" in the age of climate change:

Going underground with power lines, in stages over decades, is the sensible, intelligent plan to avoid these prolonged outages in densely populated areas. We should say to America's energy scientists and engineers: Come on, find a way to modernize this piece of our aging infrastructure.

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If atmospheric and climate scientists are convinced that the Earth is changing, with more erratic and violent weather reaching beyond traditional ranges — tornadoes in Towson!? — we should make adjustments. One fundamental adjustment should be in how we receive power.

By one published estimate, half of all outages are caused by trees falling on power lines or motor vehicles hitting utility poles.

Green energy is great. I hope we develop more solar power. I hope we harness the wind. I hope we see a nuclear renaissance and the closing of coal-fired power plants.

But, in the meantime, we have this practical problem that keeps occurring. And there's a practical solution.

No doubt, it's expensive. The utilities keep telling us how costly it will be to bury power lines. Rob Gould, spokesman for BGE, said $1 million a mile, and an expert on power delivery at the University of Florida reported that figure to NPR last year. This week, the Associated Press quoted a range of $5 million to $15 million per city mile. The source for that estimate was a nonprofit research group funded by electric utilities.

Pardon my skepticism. What utilities count on is the public's short attention span. In a crisis, they get grumbles and questions about why power lines are still overhead. But as soon as the lights come back on, the grumbles and the questions go away.

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We shouldn't let BGE off so easy this time.

Exelon, the new corporate parent of BGE, could announce a plan to bury power lines in areas that experienced two or more outages in the last four major storms. The company could take on some of the costs and arrange long-term financing to soften the blow to customers.

BGE spent $81 million in repairs after last September's storms. You can count on the derecho cleanup being in the multiple millions, too. Most people I know, sitting around a kitchen table to do a household budget, would say it makes more sense to invest in a long-term solution to prevent a costly, recurring problem. You don't need to be a theoretical physicist to see that.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com


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