June 25, 2018
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Power outages aren’t acts of nature: The lines should be underground

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Gary Anderson, Special to the BDN

News outlets are now well into the usual winter storm stories regarding our electrical utilities’ failure to provide service or restore service in a timely manner. Other familiar coverage tells of various human interest coping anecdotes. Finally, there are those pieces praising the repair crew “heroes” in righting another “act of God or nature.”

You have storms; you’ll have power outages. That is our way of life.

Power outages, however, are not acts of nature. They are failures of service by a utility because its choice of power conveyance is inadequate during acts of nature. Central Maine Power Co. spends $23 million annually on tree trimming and millions upon millions more each year to restore power when that expenditure fails to overcome the more fundamental problem of above ground conveyance: exposure to the elements. Those annual costs are passed on to the ratepayer in full, year after year.

Whatever the season, there are a wide range of threats: line insulator failure and tree limb knockdowns, ice damage, high winds, and the vagaries of squirrels, osprey nesting, lightning strikes or fires. Funny how water and gas delivery aren’t affected.

Having energy jump from telephone pole to telephone pole is wasteful, expensive and unreliable. It is an anachronistic conveyance that ludicrously continues more than a century after its crude implementation. This business model routinely fails its ratepayers, charges them for that failure in passed-on expenses and will continue to do so because it is best for the utility’s bottom line.

Putting Maine’s electrical service underground isn’t possible because it would be too costly. Despite gas and water’s evidence to the contrary — that it is obviously affordable and doable, even here in Maine — that is the commonly accepted belief. The truth is, because they can, electrical utilities choose maximization of profit over improved service, and, like any expense, improved service is a matter of desire and value weighed against cost, and long-term investment benefit versus initial expenditure.

Elsewhere, in most industrialized countries, electricity has been put underground. Germany’s power grid has outages for an average rate of 21 minutes per year. In England, it was buried from the get-go, for safety, for economic reasons, and because Briton found its appearance above ground heinous to behold.

In reaction to June 2012’s devastating derecho windstorm, Washington D.C., and Potomac Electric Power Co. put together a “Power Line Undergrounding Task Force.” Its “findings and recommendations” are to put all power underground as the optimum strategy to achieve the “best balance of reliability improvement and cost.” Cost to consumers will be a monthly rate increase of $1.50 the first year rising to $3.25 in years 9-15 under a financing combination of securitization combined with rate base surcharges.

Instead of cheering out-of-state line service recovery warriors brought in “per diem” at additional ratepayers’ expense to restore a semblance of reliable delivery until the next failure, we should demand an accounting for this completely outmoded system. We should tell our utilities to continue this failure of product delivery and its compounded cost, at their expense, not ours.

To be repeatedly told that a burial remedy is too expensive — just can’t be done — lulls ratepayers into a defeatist deception. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, fool me every year, year after year, shame on me.

What is truly shameful is the complicity of inaction by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Its mandate needs serious correction.

Gary Anderson and his wife were raised in U.S. cities that undergrounded their power in the 1950s. His research in the subject has grown steadily ever since relocating to Maine in 1970. He now lives in Bath. This OpEd was originally published in the Sun Journal.

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