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The Importance of Upgrading the Electrical Grid

James Surowieki has a column in the New Yorker talking about the crucial need to upgrade our national infrastructure, especially the electric grid, as well as making New York and other coastal cities safer from the inevitable effects of global warming. I’m going to focus on the electric grid:

Our power grid is, by the standards of the developed world, shockingly unreliable. A study by three Carnegie Mellon professors in 2006 found that average annual power outages in the U.S. last four times as long as those in France and seven times as long as those in the Netherlands. (The past two years’ data would likely be even worse.) This isn’t because of a lack of resources—the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy. But, though we may have the coolest twenty-first-century technology in our homes, we’re stuck with mid-twentieth-century roads and wires.

I think President Obama missed a big opportunity with the 2009 stimulus bill. I would like to have seen a major focus of that bill be a TVA-style project to upgrade the electric grid and, at the same time, make broadband internet access more widely available to rural areas. Part of the problem with upgrading the electric grid, of course, is that most of the transmission lines are privately owned. But if this is not a perfect target for eminent domain, I don’t know what is.

I’ve been a longtime critic of the abuse of eminent domain laws, but electric transmission lines are exactly the sort of thing that those laws are designed for and are necessary. Fragmentation of the ownership of transmission lines is a major hurdle in getting a comprehensive solution to make the entire network safer from disruption and better protected against attack. At the very least, the threat of eminent domain can be used to force the companies that own those lines to work together to upgrade the entire network.

It’s going to cost money, one way or the other. The federal government can pay for the whole upgrade, or some type of consortium of the electric companies can pool their resources, make the investment and pass on the costs to consumers. Either way, we all will have to pay a little more. But just like the other disaster prevention plans Surowiecki discusses, this will almost certainly be much cheaper in the long run than the cost of keeping the status quo.

Comments

  1. says

    There was a really interesting comment in a recent article I read in Der Speigel:
    “The power lines in Brooklyn and Queens, on Long Island and in New Jersey, in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, are not underground, but are still installed along a fragile and confusing above-ground network supported by utility poles, the way they are in developing countries.”

    With respect to the idea that we’ll all have to pay a little more: didn’t the power companies pocket a great deal of the profits during the time that they allowed their infrastructure to fall apart? So why should someone else be expected to help them out for not re-investing wisely in their infrastructure? Rewarding short-term thinking just gets you more short-term thinking.

    I work in computer security and frequently, whenever smart grid or SCADA security comes up, one of the first questions is “Who’s going to pay the bar bill for fixing all these screwed-up systems?” It seems that I’m the only person who ever says, “why don’t you take the money from all the ‘cost savings’ you pocketed when you put the system in place?”

  2. Kengi says

    Smart meters are also an important part of such an upgrade since understanding and controlling demand is so vital to maintaining the delicate balance of loads on the system. Of course now the marching morons of America are fighting against the smart meters because of the ever so scary radio signal emissions that are giving everyone brain tumors and making their chests grow larger…

  3. TGAP Dad says

    The first thing I thought of when you mentioned “eminent domain,” is just how loud the howls from the right would have been about a “guv’mint takeover.” I’m sure that socialism and communism would have been flogged endlessly, even to some extent outside the confines of Fox Noise. Hell, we are hearing those cries NOW, in the utter absence of anything remotely resembling socialism.

  4. Michael Heath says

    There’s strategy and there’s execution of that strategy. The execution of the stimulus bill was amazing, the GOP has hardly attempted to demagogue, let alone got much traction out of what attempts they made. VP Biden has not received accolades he deserves, or the Obama Administration in general. However it’s sadly ironic that the Republicans have been somewhat successful falsely claiming the stimulus didn’t work when in fact it created the amount of growth and jobs consistent with the size of the stimulus and the stimulative factors employed.

    On the other hand the lesson learned in Iraq was that the strategy could very well have worked, but the Bush Administration was so incredibly incompetent they seized defeat out of the jaws of victory.

    I bring these two big initiatives up because I’d love to see the Democrats administer a smart energy grid. However, I’d be a nervous nellie watching the Republicans do the same. The only factor I’m sure the GOP would get right, only in their minds, was enriching some of their financial constituents.

  5. says

    There have been occasions where I idly thought about the pros and cons of nationalizing or privatizing certain things, and power struck me as one of those things where nationalization seems to make sense. I think I’d like to revise that to the power infrastructure, at least as the first step. Get the grid up to date and give everyone access.

    Make it an issue of national pride. We’ve got a lot of people and we’re spread out over more land than other first world nations. We should push ourselves to show that we can overcome that difficulty and without cutting corners. If we can do that, that’ll be one new, concrete thing America can be praised for, rather than the fluffy nothings and nostalgia of jingoism.

    Just remembered my review of Part 1 of the Atlas Shrugged movie. There was one point where the main character decided to cut off the train routes to unprofitable rural areas. Yeah, I think that’s what we’re up against. Those areas that get cut off are less likely to become more prosperous and more profitable in the long term.

  6. raven says

    well as making New York and other coastal cities safer from the inevitable effects of global warming. I’m going to focus on the electric grid

    I’ll focus on rising sea level rising then.

    1. It is estimated that protecting NYC alone will cost $20 billion.

    2. Sandy caused $30 billion in damage to NYC and $40 billion to NJ.

    The latest measurements indicate that the sea is rising 50% faster than we expected.

    This would make an excellent stimulus project and it will have to be done or we will end up abandoning large sections of coastline and major cities.

  7. dave says

    But, though we may have the coolest twenty-first-century technology in our homes, we’re stuck with mid-twentieth-century roads and wires.

    (my emphasis)

    Ed and others have suggested a government takeover of the power-lines as a solution. That may not be a bad idea, but it obviously is not the whole solution: Our roadways are already under government control, but appear to be suffering the same fate.

  8. valhar2000 says

    The power lines in Brooklyn and Queens, on Long Island and in New Jersey, in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, are not underground, but are still installed along a fragile and confusing above-ground network supported by utility poles, the way they are in developing countries.

    I recall hearing years ago about debates over whether power lines should be buried because they cause leukemia, or whether they should be left as they are because the expense would ruin the country.

    Here in Spain, power lines around residential areas are almost universally buried. It’s not even some sort of great governmental program: it’s just the way it is, the way developers always do it (it’s probably mandated by law, but still). And we can afford it with a much lower per capita income.

  9. says

    Smart grids are nice, but won’t fix issues like power lines breaking every time some big storm comes along.

    Either way, we all will have to pay a little more.

    Not necessarily. For example, if the network is reliable enough, home owners won’t need to pay for a power generator anymore, nor for the gas it runs on.

  10. baal says

    Half the reason for the private and fragmented ownership of the power lines is that the power companies wanted it that way. The lines can charge ‘rent’ (usage) but have a high maintenance cost. the power generators spun off the line maintenance because it hurts the profitability margins that show up on balance sheets. The rent charge is then colluded to run the power line cos in the red or just to break even. Those loses are then used as off sets for the parent power cos who can buy and spin off the power lines as needed to balance the gross income (net tax balancing off set game). Overall, it leads to bad power distribution with NO incentive to fix the structural problems. Renationalize the utilities (or force them into a non-profit structure) and have say the first 300 transmission miles (or some other number) from a power plant be tied to that plant. This would remove the structural hurdles that prevent a rational smart grid implementation.

  11. slc1 says

    making New York and other coastal cities safer from the inevitable effects of global warming.

    Oh, but according to the blogs’ leading denialist, Sir Lancelot, global warming ain’t happening.

  12. wscott says

    I’ve been a longtime critic of the abuse of eminent domain laws, but electric transmission lines are exactly the sort of thing that those laws are designed for and are necessary. Fragmentation of the ownership of transmission lines is a major hurdle in getting a comprehensive solution to make the entire network safer from disruption and better protected against attack. At the very least, the threat of eminent domain can be used to force the companies that own those lines to work together to upgrade the entire network.

    Couldn’t agree more, Ed. It seems a lot of Libertarians (other than you) desperately want to ignore this fact, but common infrastructure is a classic example of where government does have an important role to play. The deterioration of our privately-owned transmission system, rail lines, etc should be an obvious refutation to the notion that the Private Sector Does Everything Better. Yet people like Michael Shermer (who I used to respect) still write drivel about how if only our roads were privately owned they’d all be in perfect condition and there’d be no traffic congestion. (Yes, he really wrote that.)

    didn’t the power companies pocket a great deal of the profits during the time that they allowed their infrastructure to fall apart? So why should someone else be expected to help them out for not re-investing wisely in their infrastructure? Rewarding short-term thinking just gets you more short-term thinking.

    Perhaps, but there’s no easy way to collect that money short of decades in litigation with no guaranteed win. You’d have better luck looking forward rather than backward: tax the power companies x% of future profits until the costs of the project have been recouped. They’ll still howl of course, but they all know the infrastructure has to be upgraded, so as long as the tax is applied to all the companies fairly the deal should be sellable.

    There was one point where the main character decided to cut off the train routes to unprofitable rural areas.

    It occurs to me that if the democrats really want to appeal to rural voters, pushing for infrastructure upgrades in rural areas should be a winning tactics. Let the republicans argue The Market Dictates that rural areas should be left to wither & die and see how that goes over in Appalachia.

  13. says

    “I would like to have seen a major focus of that bill be a TVA-style project to upgrade the electric grid and, at the same time, make broadband internet access more widely available to rural areas.”

    Sorry, Ed, that has to wait until a pro-business GOP administration comes in, raises taxes on the middle two quintiles of taxpayers to pay for it and then, having completed the system, sells it to a private company for about 3 cents on the dollar.

    “Either way, we all will have to pay a little more.”

    Sorry, not if the private(eers) companies that are currently in the bidneth have anything to do with it.

    I haven’t had any luck finding it, but back when Seabrook Station was being built on the NH seacoast a Public Service of NH spokesprick said that power would be so cheap, upon completion, that PSNH residential customers would just pay a flat rate and not need to have their power consumption metered. It didn’t quite work out that way.

    The Japanese are currently embarking on a program to wean themselves off of the nuclear teat. Afaia, there are only a couple of the 50 or so commercial nukes in Japan making power for the grid, at the moment. They are looking down the barrel of gun, in economic turns, but they seem determined (the people of the country, if not their gummint) to avoid future accidents of the sort suffered by the Fukushima plant.

  14. says

    “There was one point where the main character decided to cut off the train routes to unprofitable rural areas.”

    Back when I worked for Verizon, in the regulatory office in Boston (I was a clerk/copy boy weenie) FIOS was just starting it’s roll out. Back then it was envisioned as going national and being a “last mile” sort of service, making sure that people in notoriously underserved demographics wouldn’t be shut out.

    Fast forward abut 8 years. I live in Oswego, NY, 35 miles+/- from Syracuse. FIOS is in Syracuse (not in every part of the city) and some of the surrounding burbs. And that’s as far as it will be rolled out, according to Verzion. If you live in Clay, NY, you’re in luck. If you’re in Phoenix, NY (abutting Clay in some spots) you’re shit-outta-luck. Oswego–nahgonnahappen. Yeah, the inivisible hand of the market once again giving consumers the finger. I give a shit, as I don’t got no teevve but Verizon is not making friends up here.

  15. slc1 says

    Re democommie @ #14

    Once again, someone demonstrates his/her total ignorance of what actually happened to the Fukushima nuclear power plants. The plants survived the earthquake just fine. It was the tsunami that did them in as they had designed the system for a 15 foot tidal surge and, unfortunately, were hit with a 30 foot tidal surge, which shorted out the diesel backup generators which are needed to power down the plants. There was a discussion about this on Sean Carroll’s (the physicist Sean Carroll) blog some time ago.

  16. wscott says

    @ slc1 #16 – Your description of the Fukushima-Daici disaster is reasonably accurate. Your description of demcommie’s post, however, is lacking; he never mentioned earthquakes at all, but only referred to the overall “accident.” So I’m not sure what your point is.

  17. dmcclean says

    Our power grid is, by the standards of the developed world, shockingly unreliable. A study by three Carnegie Mellon professors in 2006 found that average annual power outages in the U.S. last four times as long as those in France and seven times as long as those in the Netherlands. (The past two years’ data would likely be even worse.) This isn’t because of a lack of resources—the U.S. is the world’s biggest economy.

    It seems to me that to make this comment without even mentioning population density is misleading. France: 303 / mi^2. Netherlands: 1285 / mi^2. US: 89 / mi^2.

    By my uncalibrated Mark I eyeball, 89 : 303 : 1285 :: 1 : 4 : 7.

  18. says

    @17:

    Since slc1 only corrcts me when I’m wrong (which still gives LOTS of opportunities;>) I’m assuming that he’s talking about the author.

    FWIW, the earthquake may not have directly caused the meltdown, but I believe it DID cause the earthquake. So, it’s six of one and half-a-dozen of the other.

  19. davem says

    The first time I went to the US, I was struck by the poles and the lines on them. What an almighty mess! Every US town looks like a slum. Just bury them; the place will be safer in storms, and will look, well, civilised.

  20. says

    @dmcclean in #18:
    Population density in New Jersey: 1,189/mi^2
    Population density in New York: 412.3/mi^2 (never mind the population density of New York City)
    (source)
    Sure, low population density may make underground power lines too expensive in large parts of the US, but it’s simply not an issue in the parts hit by hurricane Sandy, for example. Even in some of the most densely populated areas in the US, people are used to the fact that after a storm they may be without power for a day or more. This would simply be unimaginable here in the Netherlands.

  21. lancifer says

    slc1,

    Oh, but according to the blogs’ leading denialist, Sir Lancelot, global warming ain’t happening.

    I never said that “global warming ain’t happening”. Try to be more accurate in your slurs.

  22. dmcclean says

    I didn’t say it was the only factor, I said it was misleading not to mention it.

    Your analysis of the population of the coastal areas affected is correct and important in the (happens to be current) case of a coastally localized disaster, because coastal population is always way higher than inland. But the averages cited in the OP are … averages. They presumably include lots of outages that occur in less developed areas. Especially because less developed areas have more trees. And that’s without even getting to the fact that the generation capacity is geographically dispersed.

    I’m not saying we don’t have problems, or even major problems, or even major problems caused by mismanagement. I’m saying that it seems very likely to me that the statistics used in the OP exaggerate the degree to which they are caused by mismanagement.

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