Thursday, July 5, 2012

Overhead Power Lines: Transportation’s Achilles Heel

Bad Weather + Overhead power lines = Explosion. Photo courtesy of Robert Lawton/Wikipedia
A power outage shuts down a major metropolitan area. Customers are outraged. Politicians demand answers. The utility company responsible issues a full page ad to apologize. 

Am I referring to Washington, DC in July of 2012? Yes to the first part, no to the second. I’m referring to the outage of February 2010 and July of the same year. PEPCO, the utility serving the city of Washington and some of its suburbs, was forced to issue a public apology for failing to keep their grid up and running. The need for an apology stemmed from the fact that this was not the first time power had failed because of a shoddy network. The Washington Post found a persistent pattern of failure going back to 2005.

So what does this matter to transportation planners? Plenty--- all of the smart technology linking traffic signals, road sensors, cameras and so forth depends on power. When power dies, the signals die with it. Those charged with monitoring transportation find themselves in the dark figuratively, and perhaps literally, as they can’t see what’s happening with dead sensors and cameras. 

Mass transit staff have the greatest challenge of all, as a subway train isn’t going anywhere without electricity through the third rail. Buses are hamstrung by those darkened traffic lights, especially since those intersections will revert to all-way stops that half of the drivers ignore. 

One final problem for the transportation grid occurs when downed power lines block streets entirely. In the aftermath of the July 2012 storm, some streets in the Washington region remained blocked by wires nearly a week later. This demonstrates the fundamental issue with the power grid: exposure to inclement weather.

In the United States most utility companies prefer to place their transmission lines aboveground. The appeal is obvious. It’s quick and cheap. Unfortunately, that leaves wires exposed to lightning and winds from thunderstorms, hurricanes and derechos. A tree falls on the line, pulls down a couple of poles, and a surge travels through the line overloading transformers. Replicate this over a wide area, and the utility is facing a large bill. If the outage area is big enough, line crews will have to be brought in from out-of-state to assist with rebuilding the electrical grid. Expensive as this is for the utility, the solution---burying the lines--- is worse.

How expensive is putting the lines underground the way they often are in private developments? Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit funded by the utilities, estimated an astronomic  sum between $5 million to $15 million per mile. The Washington Post reports North Carolina came up with a number of $41 billion that would have to be spent over a 25 year period to bury its lines after a particularly bad winter storm. Private developers can more easily afford  this option because of the relatively short distances involved. 

However, if the price tag for widespread burial sounds unaffordable, consider the costs of an unreliable power grid and paralyzed transportation network. The gross domestic product of the Washington metro area is approximately $425 billion per year, or about $1.16 billion per day. Therefore, a week’s worth of outages could conceivably cost the region over $7 billion. Suddenly, North Carolina’s supposedly crippling $41 billion cost spread out over 25 years to bury wires doesn’t look so bad.

Cost isn’t the only factor in this equation. A lack of willpower is probably the biggest impediment to improving power supply reliability. Electricity providers in the US are mostly publicly-held companies with stock held by large, institutional investors. These investors focus on short-term profitability in the company they choose to invest in, not long-term costs for the economy as a whole. That weakens any incentive on the part of utility company CEOs to endorse a massive improvement to the power delivery system, even if their companies are amazingly profitable and could endure the cost. It would entail adding a big expense to the bottom line. It’s easier to justify the expense of repair, since that involves a necessity---it’s hard to charge customers for power they aren’t getting.

Utilities certainly are amazingly profitable. PEPCO reported a net income of over $250 million in just one year; previous years have been as high as $400 million. Dominion Power, which is responsible for supply (and outages) in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, clocked in a net income of $1.4 billion in 12 months.  That’s a little over $100 million per month. So, if the utilities aren’t hurting for money, why aren’t politicians able to require improvements?

The main reason is the massive lobbying that utilities engage in. In one year PEPCO spent $3.8 million on lobbying  elected officials in the District and Maryland. That buys a lot of persuasive power that can easily overwhelm the diminishing complaints of an apathetic electorate.

I know it seems odd that voters would forget the hassle of an outage and not turn up the heat on the political class, but that’s exactly what happens. Voters are angry when their power goes out, but quickly get over their anger once it comes back on. Without voter anger driving political action, the pressure for change falters. Without this pressure, rate increases keep getting approved by the controlling authorities. Life goes on as before until the next outage. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But let’s suppose someone else adds up the damage from outages caused by exposed transmission lines. What action can they take? The weak spot for utilities is their profitability: cut into it, and they will react. The institutional investors will demand as much. 

Putting a cap on rate hikes doesn’t address the issue by itself. Plus, any cap will weaken over time as public memory of a blackout fades. A permanent solution that targets lax behavior is needed. Ironically, that solution is the same one used to keep you and me from parking our cars in the middle of a travel lane: assess a fine. Only in this case, the fines would hit whenever an overhead line fell and blocked a route.
This directly punishes a utility for failing to anticipate risks their systems pose to the transportation network. The fines could escalate according to the importance of the route blocked. The lowest would be for obstructing a driveway, since that affects one household, while the highest would be for blocking a high-capacity road or transit line affecting potential thousands of commuters and deliveries. If a utility allows their lines to be exposed to the risk inherent in aboveground placement, those fines will add up to a level that will cause a few shouting matches in their boardrooms. 

James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic that the perception that America is falling behind isn’t confined to our own chattering classes. It’s also a view shared by many in Europe and Asia that’s growing because of our failure to push for improvements to our infrastructure. The Washington power outage of 2012 will almost surely reinforce this impression. Our best hope is to make the status quo more expensive than major change. In truth, it already is for the economy as a whole, but few seem to realize that we are all shareholders in that venture.

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