Southern Power

Once again a not-uncommon natural phenomenon has demonstrated that the only sensible place for electricity transmission lines is underground. Perhaps not the giant feeder lines rated in thousands of kiloVolts (why not Megavolts I wonder), but certainly those ubiquitous pole hangers that for a hundred years and more have teeter-tottered for mile after mile through suburb and farmland alike.

Electric bill
Environmental surcharge: A monthly charge or credit passed on to customers to to pay for the cost of pollution-control equipment needed to meet government-mandated air emission requirements.

The utility companies argue that to bury the lines would be prohibitively expensive and the knock-on cost crippling to the customer, and put that way, it’s a pretty scary argument – the hip-pocket nerve is very sensitive after all – but how much does this antiquated delivery system, virtually unchanged since Edison’s day, cost the consumer now? And since when haven’t costs been passed on? A utility here in Kentucky tacks a levy onto its bills each month because “new” environmental regulations “forced on it by the EPA” mean it has to build a new power station and clean up its act in others.  Apparently, modern accounting doesn’t allow for replacement costs, depreciation or research and development, but literally passes the buck using the “airline formula”: the fare is touted at only $50 but to cover fuel prices, charges for air-traffic controllers, airport facilities and keeping the public safe – part of the cost of running their business, I thought – they tack on a bunch of “levies”, implying it’s not them but someone else billing you.

But back to those tipsy wonders of 19th-century engineering. What is the annual nationwide cost of replacing utility poles that have reached their use-by date? How much does it cost to replace others still sound but so overburdened with power lines, phone and teevee cables that six months after they were erected they must be braced with more stays than any full-rigged ship ever carried? Do the companies bear this expense or do we?

What are the costs of wildfires started by arcing power lines or the environmental costs of the wood-treatment chemicals leaching from the poles, not to mention the number of trees needed to keep the system functioning in its present precarious state? What about the disruption to households and businesses that can be caused by even a moderate thunderstorm? Who if not the consumer pays for the spoiled food, the lost wages, the meals that had to be eaten out, the fuel used by backup generators?

Commerce – even cottage commerce – is now totally dependent on electricity, even down to printing shipping labels for on-line orders. A supplier might have insurance to cover disruptions and lost sales, but its insurance company spreads the cost of that insurance among all its policy holders and that’s you and me and the corner store if you’re lucky enough to still have one of those.

Of course it would be expensive up-front, but so was the Hoover Dam and the freeways that criss-cross the country, but they put a lot of people in work. The taxpayer could fund the project by providing an organization like the CCC and the utilities could lease or buy the infrastructure. It would be a Big Thing; another Hoover Dam to build morale, provide jobs, get the country moving; and the consumer would be no worse off, in fact one could argue that the lot of the paying public would be bettered.

If the USA ever manages to free itself from the clutches of the arms-industry lobbyists, it will find itself with even more people in need of employment, not to mention a vast accumulation of matériele. A new CCC would thus be able to draw from a large pool of instructors and mentors able to train civilian recruits. Think on the enormous benefit to public health that would result.

There I go, widdershins again; back to the electric underground.

The infrastructure could be shared between communications and power companies and then perhaps one day there’d be no need for under- and above-ground utilities running side by side for miles along a freeway.

One last thing. How difficult would it be for even the most simple-minded group of misguided “ists” of whatever stripe to cause massive, nationwide disruption to power and communications with a few lengths of weighted wire or a few gallons of corrosive chemical? Not as terribly spectacular as the horror of 9/11, nor as useful as instant propaganda, but in the long run far more cost effective.

Does the argument that repairs would be too difficult and costly really stand up? The need for constant repairs would diminish I’d think, and surely a bit of research could find a way around alleged technical difficulties. If water companies ran their pipes above ground, would the cost of household water fall? I doubt it – there’s news that a water company is going to tack on a levy for a new pipeline it wants to build – airline accounting again.

Where’s that dedication to service, efficiency and good old USA can-do and technical know-how the utility companies tout in their ads? Surely not just in the mind of the same copywriter who dreamed up clean coal.

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Frank Povah

Frank Povah

Arriving in the USA in late 2008, Frank Povah moved to Stamping Ground, Kentucky in mid 2009. Passionate about the written and spoken word and constantly bewildered by non-verbs and neo-nouns, Frank trained as a typesetter - though he has worked at many things - and later branched out into proofreading, writing and editing. For many years he has been copy editor, consultant and columnist with a prestigious Australian quarterly along with running his own editorial and typesetting business. His other interests are many and include traditional music, especially that of the south, folklore, natural history, and pigeons.

3 Comments
  1. Well, water is a tricky substance. In the northern climes it freezes to a depth of at least 24 inches in the ground and, in the process of thawing, it dislodges whatever is buried anywhere near it. Also, water corrodes metal and causes plastic to crack. Then when it comes into contact with electrons in a current, it shorts them out.
    Tree huggers used to agitate for underground electric cables, until they discovered that the trees would still have to be kept out of the route, lest their roots and rootlets grow into the cables. Any joint is an immediate invitation for microscopic invaders. So, really, the maintenance would be the same, except everything would have to be dug up. Burying conduit through which the lines can be threaded don’t work because the conduit attracts water. Running water lines under-ground actually makes sense because, at least under the frost line, the ground is a constant temperature (45 degrees in Maine, 65 in Florida) and that minimizes the temperature effect.
    Most of our problems with our big power plants are related to water. Nuclear plants need water to cool furnaces that get too hot. Why don’t we make ovens that don’t melt? Ceramics might work, if they don’t crack. Why don’t we plan on having individual solar collectors or power generator on each structure? ‘Cause there would be no recurring source of revenue for power companies, which don’t perform routine maintenance on their lines, because that would reduce their profit margin.
    Yes, how we account for things is a big problem. But, it’s not the accountants’ fault. They never intended their accounting to be the reason for doing stuff in the first place.

  2. Frank Povah

    Good morning, Monica. I’m glad that you have lumped me together with the ideologically incompetent tree huggers. This is obviously the reason I can’t comprehend why a society that put a human on the moon can’t find a way to improve the power delivery system (or, if it comes to that, design efficient garden hose to faucet fittings). This also explains why I wasn’t aware that tree roots don’t get into water lines so it’s okay to place them underground. Presumably they never have to be dug up for repairs.

    And of course you are right about accountants. They just come up with quasi-legitimate schemes as a mental exercise; it’s not their fault if their bosses decide to use them for gain. Sort of a bit like the invention of the A-bomb really.

  3. I have lived in a community for 20 years now where all power lines are underground. Not only does the area look better, free of all those poles and wires, but we also enjoy constant service. I can think of just one time when the power went out and that wasn’t for very long. While we are talking about poles and wires let’s hope that outdoor billboards go the way of the dinosaurs.

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