Last Updated:September 1 @ 05:27 pm

No easy fix in massive power outage

By Eric Tucker and Chris Kahn

WASHINGTON (AP) - In the aftermath of storms that knocked out power to millions, sweltering residents and elected officials are demanding to know why it's taking so long to restring power lines and why they're not more resilient in the first place.

The answer, it turns out, is complicated: Above-ground lines are vulnerable to lashing winds and falling trees, but relocating them underground incurs huge costs - as much as $15 million per mile of buried line - and that gets passed onto consumers.

With memories of other extended outages fresh in the minds of many of the 1.26 million customers who still lack electricity, some question whether the delivery of power is more precarious than it used to be. The storms that began Friday killed 24 people in seven states and the District of Columbia.

"It's a system that from an infrastructure point of view is beginning to age, has been aging," said Gregory Reed, a professor of electric power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. "We haven't expanded and modernized the bulk of the transmission and distribution network."

The powerful winds that swept from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic late Friday, toppling trees onto power lines and knocking out transmission towers and electrical substations, have renewed debate about whether to bury lines. District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray was among officials calling for the change this week and was seeking to meet with the chief executive of Pepco, the city's dominant utility, to discuss what he called a slow and frustrating response.

"They obviously need to invest more in preparing for getting the power back on," said Maryland state Sen. James Rosapepe, who is among those advocating for moving lines underground. "Every time this happens, they say they're shocked - shocked that it rained or snowed or it was hot - which isn't an acceptable excuse given that we all know about climate change."

Though the newest communities do bury their power lines, many older ones have found that it's too expensive to replace existing networks.

To bury power lines, utilities need to take over city streets so they can cut trenches into the asphalt, lay down plastic conduits and then the power lines. Manholes must be created to connect the lines together. The overall cost is between $5 million and $15 million per mile, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, Inc., a nonprofit research and development group funded by electric utilities. Those costs get passed on to residents in the form of higher electric bills, making the idea unpalatable for many communities.

Pepco's initial estimates are that it would be a $5.8 billion project to bury power lines in D.C. and would cost customers an extra $107 per month, said Michael Maxwell, vice president of asset management.

North Carolina considered burying its lines in 2003, after a winter storm knocked out power to 2 million utility customers. The North Carolina Public Staff Utilities Commission eventually concluded it was "prohibitively expensive" and time-consuming. The project would have cost $41 billion and taken 25 years to complete - and it would have raised residential electric bills by 125 percent.

An onslaught of recent extreme weather around the country, including heat waves, wildfires and flooding, has increased strain on infrastructure already struggling to meet growing consumer demand. And some scientists predict the severe weather will only increase, though it will take time to study this year's weather before any conclusions can be drawn.

Pepco has contingency plans for dealing with severe weather like tornadoes and hurricanes and runs periodic drills in which staff go through the process of responding to mass outages. In this case, though, the hurricane-force winds lashed the region with no advance notice, creating a type of quick-hit storm that caught the utility flat-footed and for which it had not practiced, Maxwell said.

"That's going to be a very big lesson for us," he said. "We need to understand how we recover from this."

A stress index created by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which monitors the country's power supply to annually assess its performance, shows that day-to-day performance seems to have improved, but there was an increase in high-stress days. The company counted six high-stress days in 2011, slightly more than the three preceding years. Weather was a contributing factor in nine of the 10 failures severe enough to generate a federally required report in 2011.

But utility insiders acknowledge that the math is little comfort when a customer's air conditioner fails during a triple-digit heat wave and the food spoils.

"The industry is getting better and better," said Aaron Strickland, who oversees distribution and emergency operations for Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Co. "In my opinion, I think the expectations of customers are higher and higher because we depend so much on electricity. ... We expect to push that button and it works."

Still, he noted Friday's storms pummeled the region with no advance warning, and "you can't prepare for that."

"You don't see it coming," Strickland said. "It just happens."

Seth Blumsack, an assistant professor of energy policy and economics at Penn State, said utilities are making investments in transmission upgrades but "it doesn't look like blackouts are getting any less common."

"Some studies have suggested that they are getting more common," he said. "Some studies have suggested that they're happening at basically the same rate as they used to."

Though the country's power infrastructure is reliable, it was mostly built between the 1930s and 1970s and is starting to age, said Reed of the University of Pittsburgh.

Bruce Wollenberg, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota who specializes in power systems, said it's hard to tell if extended outages are more common than in years past. But the capacity for high-voltage transmission systems has not increased with demand, he said, in part because of the cost of moving power lines underground and the general distaste for having above-ground lines right outside homes.

"People don't want power lines - period ...They don't like the way they look, they don't like a lot of things," Wollenberg said. "It's universal across the country, and I think across the world. People don't want power lines. They don't want more power lines."

Residents' complaints about the latest outages have increased with their duration.

Kevin Fogg, a barber from the rural community of Jefferson, about 45 miles northwest of Washington, scoffed when asked if he'd be willing to pay Potomac Edison higher rates to prevent more outages like the one he's been suffering through.

"I think it's more than it should be already," Fogg said.

He said the utility company should do a better job of trimming trees and branches that threaten power lines.

"There's a huge, dead tree hanging over our line and they said, `Well, we're not going to cut it down,'" Fogg said. "It's got to break first and knock the power line down before they'll do anything about it. So I guess they won't do any preventive maintenance - or at least not as much as they should."

Jean Cuseo, a middle-school art teacher from Jefferson, said she's not sure if she'd be willing to pay more to prevent outages, even if that were an option.

"I'm pretty environmentally friendly. If I could live off the grid I would," she said.

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Kahn reported from New York. Associated Press writers Ray Henry in Atlanta and David Dishneau in Jefferson, Md., contributed to this report.

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11 Comments

  1. mary83Comment by mary83
    July 4, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

    Congress should have voted for the infrastructure bill President Obama sent to them to put people back to work and the infrastructure instead of tabling it. When this storm hit they might be on the grid.Now they are griping because not right back on. most of the lines were old like 30 years. Too bad others have to suffer. Have to say though now sorry members of congress are suffering.They were too busy turning out lies and fighting a health care law we need. economy would be better, but no lets not let him put people to work. What with mothers nature in one of her cycles making it hotter and the contaminates in the air from the oil, coal, and fracking we have made it worse. It is time that they started thinking of the country and the global warming, putting people back to work instead of fighting what needs to be done , vote them out.I don’t care which party they belong to if don’t work for the American people vote them out.

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    • BillzillaComment by Billzilla
      July 4, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

      Gosh Mary, I think that you hit the nail on the head! Hang the cost, let’s get the Federal Government to just give it to us for free! If they’re short of cash, they can just raise taxes on the greedy, rich exploiters of the people… or better yet… just print some more money! Yeah! That’s the ticket!

      Greedy rich one percent SOBs! Poor Obama’s gotta pay everything from “His stash”. Boo Hoo.

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    • genesalComment by genesal
      July 4, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

      Better yet, tax the rich Liberal Democrats in L.A. and make them pay for it since Roberts made it possible to tax anybody for anything. If not just fine them all.

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  2. Jack ReacherComment by Jack Reacher
    July 4, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

    Mary, I realize you’re entitled to your opinion. But let me give you a clue. Showing your complete and utter ignorance publicly to this many readers isn’t a good idea. We might begin to assume that you’re just another liberal troll that has not the slightest clue. Take your global warming and shove it, too.

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  3. JDZComment by JDZ
    July 4, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    I thought it was funny, although when you think about it, it isn’t funny, when Obama admitted there really weren’t many “shovel ready” jobs that worked out in his “stimulus” program. His administration blew it with the stimulus funding because he focused primarily on public sector arenas (government budget needs at state and below levels) and industries that utilized labor union workers because he owed the unions for helping him get elected. He also invested (mostly unsuccessfully) billions of dollars in “green” energy projects most of which were sponsored by political cronies.

    If he really knew how to stimulate the economy and do something with longer term impact, he might have done the following:

    1. Work with the private industries more directly, even though 93% of the workforces are non-union, to help them through the recession.

    2. Allow non-union contractors to bid on government contracts which he refused to do.

    3. Allow the utility companies (electric, gas, telephone, TV, etc.) to propose jointly funded infrastructure upgrade programs that included moving power lines and telephone networks underground in strategic locations to minimize susceptibility to storm or other disasters. This was not offered because the workforce in these companies are mostly non-union.

    4. The Obama stimulus provided zero support to the small business community in the country where most of the jobs in our private economy are created and reside. The turnover of small business companies is outrageously high even in good times, and when the economy is depressed like it has been for the last four years, it is devastating. This is where the entrepreneur spirit of the country resides and Obama blew them off, except for some of those in “green” industries.

    There is a “penny wise and pound foolish” mentality in government to start with, and then when you factor in the politically motivated decisions, it is obvious why the government cannot be trusted to do anything in an efficient and cost effective manner.

    The Katrina mess in Louisiana is a clear example of how politicians can really screw things up. The mayor of New Orleans had been given millions of dollars in the past to shore up the dikes to protect the city from hurricanes and heavy water, but the money was diverted to “higher” priority projects and the dikes and surrounding water canals were not reinforced as recommended, and we saw what happened.

    I feel for those suffering from lack of electricity and gas service, and all of the collateral effects of something like that particularly due to natural disasters, but those running our governments all levels, are not the smartest and most experienced people in our population, and I do not trust them to think ahead much farther then the next election cycle.

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    • makesenseComment by makesense
      July 4, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

      Well reasoned comments and you hit the problem on its head…. and very sound, non-partisan solutions offered.

      The recent decision of Airbus, a foreign company, to set up a plant in Alabama, a right to work State, tells us how companies try to avoid union as much as they can. They could have set up shop in existing plants in other States but they are States with heavy union influence… like California.And California needs good paying jobs – very badly.

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    • TaquoshiComment by Taquoshi
      July 4, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

      We were without electricity for two days following the October snowstorm and there were parts of our state that were out for almost two weeks. The utility companies often won’t allow other utility companies to work on their poles, so it limits what the outside help can do. Oh, yeah, and our schools were closed for a week simply because we had so many trees down, the buses couldn’t get through, but the State Department of Education didn’t cut us any breaks.

      I don’t rejoice in other people’s difficulties, but maybe this will give the politicians a taste of what it is like when one is sitting in the dark hoping that the utility company will get there soon.

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  4. vComment by v
    July 4, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

    Well I guess it’s still Bushs fault……can’t possibly blame all the BS Regulations & New Taxes……Hey ever heard of the EPA and twit Unions and the Idiots sitting in the whitehouse and the majority in the Senate…..look at them because that is where the blame has belonged for years! Maybe girlfriend needs to actually pay attention! The only thing that will change this is a Real Election with common sense voters or an armed revolution! Enjoy the inconvience because no one gave a damn when Texans were frying for months….didn’t hear about it…..that’s right because we didn’t whine we just took care of it……Obama’s Media didn’t. Dare mention it either……take Katrina an shove it! That A** in New Orleans is still blaming everyone but their lowlife grafting lying cheating stealing selves!

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  5. wedeyComment by wedey
    July 4, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    I live in an area where are lines are underground and a few years ago we were without power for 5 days. So underground is not guarantee unless all of it is underground.

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  6. Spiritof76Comment by Spiritof76
    July 4, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

    Where are all the green energy- solar and wind? To all those people complaining about lack of power, majority of them probably voted for Obama, I say good luck with solar generators and wind generators. Thank God, nature is teaching them a lesson the utilities could not do on their own-shut all the coal-fired power plants especially at Washington DC and all around. I hope the EPA suffers the most. American people better wake up. Otherwise, these will be the gold old days our children will be longing for with lack of power every day as it happens in third world countries. This is Obama third world policies in action. Enjoy.

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  7. winstonsmithComment by winstonsmith
    July 4, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    If this weren’t so tragic it’d be hilarious! A storm knocks out power to millions with our electric grid as good (bad, really) as it has been for years. ALL possible generators running and little but air conditioners posing exceptional loads on same.
    So, or “President” wants to:
    1, shut down over 45% of our generating capacity – coal-fired stations
    2, stress the already fragile system with the year-round load of electric cars!
    He’s been called “the BEST gun salesman in America” – now what, the best salesman for Honda home generators?

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