It is a ritual in Maine, not restricted to winter: A storm is forecast. No sooner do the first flakes or raindrops fall than the power goes out. Prior to the arrival of one of our recent storms, a headline read, “Thousands will lose power.” The operative word in that sentence is not “thousands” or “power,” but rather “will.”
In short, the power companies know that countless customers will be inconvenienced, or even endangered, by storm-induced power outages that are routine. And so expectation of failure is built into the system. It is as if power outages were part of the culture. But need they be?
As I write this I am sitting in darkness, illuminated only by the glow of my computer screen, its battery at 67 percent. My power went out hours ago. Why? Who knows. When transmission lines are suspended in the air along our streets and through our neighborhoods like drapery, it doesn’t take much to put them out of commission. Wind. A tree branch. A squirrel. Sometimes only a street’s worth of houses is affected.
At other times, it is the better part of the state (recall the great ice storm of 1998), in which event, armies of linemen from Maine and neighboring states form caravans that ride to the rescue. Yes, it is a heroic scene. Yes, I am grateful for their efforts. (I wouldn’t want to be outside working with my hands in sub-zero temperatures.) But the question I’d like to pose is: Why should anyone have to?
It’s time to bury the lines. Not all at once, of course. That cost would be prohibitive. But it would seem reasonable to commence a program that would, year by year, gradually bury the wires underground in protective conduits, beginning with the town centers and working outwards into the more sparsely populated areas. Expensive? Of course.
But is it cheap to continuously send emergency crews out to repair lines that seem to fail every time the wind blows or the snow falls? This is a policy of crisis management, and it certainly can’t be the answer.
Burying the wires would not only offer protection from the elements — the way buried natural gas lines do — but it would improve the aesthetics of our communities. Recently, while driving down the street where I live, I paused to look up at the congeries of poles, transformers, junctions and, yes, wires that formed a mire over my head. My God, I thought. This is the 21st century, and the scene hasn’t changed since the 19th.
Exacerbating the eyesores is the practice of granting power lines the right of way by hacking at the trees, with no heed paid to their growing habits or aesthetics. I have seen pines flat-topped and maples defaced by having all of the branches sliced off on one side of the tree, which makes it not only into a monstrosity but throws the weight of the tree toward homes or other structures.
The people contracted by the power companies to accomplish these devastations are not arborists — they are men with chainsaws looking for something to do (sometimes they amputate limbs that are nowhere near the wires). But despite their efforts, the power still goes out.
One small sign of hope is that in new residential and business developments, the wires are routinely buried. It’s not a difficult thing to do. But it takes will as well as money. And the benefits are tangible, economic and aesthetically pleasing: a vast reduction in the number of blackouts (ever wonder why Boston rarely has power outages?), far fewer emergency crews working through the dead of night, the return of tree-lined streets and the opening up of our skies. One might also venture that with a drastic decline in outages, upward pressure on electrical rates would ease.
Western Europe has done it. So has Japan. And San Diego has an “undergrounding” program, punctuated by pole removal ceremonies. Otherwise, suspended electrical wires continue to represent a lust for the ugly in the U.S., where “maybe it won’t happen during the next storm” serves as ersatz for the lost art of planning.
Robert Klose teaches at UMA-Bangor and is a frequent contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor.