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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Headlines Announce Ghost of Christmas Future

There were two different news stories, to the casual reader totally unrelated, on the same page of The Courier-Journal today and they really do have a lot in common. One read: “Almost a million lack electricity” and the other read “Melting of Arctic ice worries scientists.” The former was about the massive ice storm which is putting so much of the mid-section of our country back into medieval conditions due to the lack of electric power and water. The latter was about climate change and how many experts in the field of global climate now think that the Arctic Ocean may be totally free of ice in the summers as early as 2012 (the earliest predictions of this phenomenon were about 2040 until this new data). As an electric utility operator, we know these two stories are inextricably related.

I have an opinion on what is causing the rapid changes to our climate, but, since I am not an expert in the field, I will refrain from sharing that opinion. But no matter what force is causing the changes, surely we can all agree that our climate is warming and mother nature is changing her habits. For those of us entrusted with designing, operating, and maintaining electric power delivery networks, this warming is sending a cold chill down our spines.

Electric power networks are complicated and relatively difficult even when things are “normal,” but they are becoming downright unstable in the new climate we are facing. For example, since the 1940's the industry has had general engineering data that our part of the country should only expect 1/4 inch of ice to accumulate on our outdoor hardware and that no more than four pounds per square foot of wind will blow against that accumulated ice. Those given factors gave rise to everything we chose to build our networks. The diameter of the poles, the strength of the downguys and anchors, the holding capacity of the insulators and the strength of the conductors all have been chosen based upon those expected conditions. Now those conditions are changing.

Now, bare wires carrying very high voltages form the basis for a network which is dangerous and, as I said earlier, a bit unstable to begin with. When extremely long periods of 100 degree temperatures are added, stressing the insulators, transformers, fittings, and other paraphernalia that we use to deliver energy to your homes, the networks perform poorly. When wind and ice far in excess of what the lines were designed to withstand are added to the equation, the result is . . . well, headlines like the one mentioned above. But there are other new stresses being applied to our power network as well. These don’t get any attention, but they are enemies of reliable networks as well.

One of those enemies, appropriate for this holiday season, is the ghost of Christmas Past. By that I mean we are all haunted by the things we have done wrong in the past. Perhaps the worst of the past sins committed by the EPB was constructing so many power lines along the rear lot lines of new residential developments instead of in the front of the lots. When we built power lines in back yards, we guaranteed ourselves terrible problems in the future, and that future has arrived. Over the years the general prosperity of folks in many neighborhoods lead to the accumulation of the trappings of wealth. Swimming pools, extensive landscaping, cherished trees, garages, outbuildings, and fences have rendered the average power line constructed along a rear lot-line totally inaccessible to us and our equipment. Combine that past sin with the changing climate of today, and you have a reliable recipe for unreliable electric power. These issues cause us to spend twelve hours repairing storm damage that might have been repaired in four hours if the lines were in an accessible location. The real problem here is that a few folks can, quite innocently, make decisions that turn their back yards into minefields for our personnel and those decisions can result in hundreds of folks being in the dark for those excess hours. It also subjects our personnel to far more dangerous work environments, and the work they do is already dangerous enough!

While we can identify the changes in climate and the dramatic effect those changes are having on our weather right here in Glasgow, and we can identify these sins of the past that add to our problems in repairing the damage caused by extreme weather, we cannot fix them anytime soon. The design and construction materials we use to build power networks are not changing anywhere near as rapidly as the climate is and we are not about to wake up on Christmas morning, like Jacob Marley did, and find that all of this was just a dream and that keeping Christmas in our heart will fix our problems. No, our sins of the past are real and cannot be changed any more rapidly than they developed over the many decades which elapsed before today.

The only thing you can do to immediately seek refuge from these ghostly visitations is to prepare. Take a look around your home and think about how you would use it as a tent in a rustic camping area with no electricity or water. Think about having to camp out in your home for at least a week without any of the modern technology that you have come to rely upon. Do you have what you would need? Is there a few gallons of clean drinking water available? Do you have an alternative heat source, something like a kerosene heater, or a fireplace, with a supply of fuel for that heat source? Do you have a battery operated radio and a supply of fresh batteries? Do you have a grill prepared for cooking food at your campsite? Do you keep a supply of food items that can be cooked on said grill? If you cannot answer all of these questions affirmatively, then I suggest you buy yourself something you can really use for Christmas . . . camping equipment and supplies! I promise you they will be the right size and will be utilized sooner or later. I hate to say it, but it is true.


Lunarwarrior said...

So what is policy of lines now???put in front or to rear?

Billy Ray said...

In front...definitely in front. Problem is all of the ones put in the wrong place over the last 50 years.