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10 After 20

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie

Here we are!  It’s 2020 – the start of a new year and a new decade.  Forty years ago I was excited about the prospect of witnessing and understanding the birth of a new decade.  I had just turned 16 and couldn’t remember 1970.  But this was different.  A whole new decade!  As my parents and I often did, we staged a New Year’s party in 1979; inviting family, friends and neighbors.  I had taken the time to cut up strips of multi-colored paper into literally thousands of squares, which I then tossed into the air from a large brown paper bag at the stroke of midnight.

I was considerably more excited ten years later, as we welcomed the 1990s, which – even now – remains the best decade of my life.  I was a young adult by then, working for a major bank in Dallas; a small personal accomplishment that made me feel I was finally a part of society and not some frustrated observer on the outside looking into a seemingly untouchable world.  During that time I began making concerted attempts to become a published writer and even contemplated returning to college.  These latter two dreams each wouldn’t materialize for more than another decade later.

The turn of the century – and the millennium – was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever experienced.  Like the dawn of the 1990s, it remains a high point of my life.  Twenty years ago the world looked more hopeful and inviting.  I wasn’t nearly as excited about the 2010s.  Things had grown kind of awkward for me by then.  But it’s come and gone.

So alas, we are at the threshold of the third decade of the 21st century.  Every New Year’s bears the excitement of a renewal; a chance to alter our priorities and improve our stations in life.  Yet, it’s different with the start of a new decade.  Since the early 1900s, societal changes have occurred rapidly.  For millennia, time periods were designated by century; now they’re often designated by decade.  Each ten-year interval boasts its own cultural shifts; fashion and music trends; and political dynamics.  As our life expectancy increases, so does our concept of time.

I’m approaching this decade with more caution, however.  As I tend to do, I maintain a safe distance and analyze the universe around me and wonder what more can be done to improve not just my life, but everyone’s lives.

These last two decades have seen an explosion of technological and cultural advances, both here in the United States and across the globe.  But, in many ways, things haven’t changed much.  I’ve focused my concern on how dismal our political and economic well-being have become.  The pathetic presidency of George W. Bush and the ever-increasing disorientation of the Donald Trump administration have set us back on many levels.  Unlike 20 years ago we now have the greatest wealth gap in over a century.  The first decade of the present century should have been an extraordinary time of progressive social and technological advancement.  Yes, everyone seemingly has a cell phone and a personal computer.  But so many promising visions of the future were lost to Middle East conflicts and an extreme level of corporate deregulation.  The “Great Recession” squashed hope for many people across the nation.  While many of my fellow Americans wonder if Bitcoin will make a resounding return to the financial sphere or what latest cell phone apps will be available in the coming months, I’m contemplating the grander picture.

In the 19th century, the U.S. built the world’s first transcontinental railroad system and helped create telephones and electric lighting.  At the start of the 20th century, we sent men into the air and then constructed the world’s largest highway system.  In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation; wanting us “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  And, we did just that!  Just seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.

The 1960s and 70s saw the birth of various civil rights movements: women, non-Whites, and gays and lesbians.  That forced America to live up to its promise to be a land of equality and prosperity.  We finally began seeing the fruits of those movements in the 1990s.

Yet here stands the U.S. – still mired in Middle East conflicts and dealing with an economy that, on the surface, looks extraordinary.  But those of us struggling with medical bills and increasingly high costs of basic living aren’t exactly thrilled that the U.S. stock market is functioning wonderfully for large corporations that don’t often pay their taxes and feel they have the unquestionable right to contaminate the environment in the name of profit.

Although I’m an introvert, I remain optimistic and would like to see society achieve some grand accomplishment over the next 10 years.

Infrastructure – As of 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. a grade of D+ for infrastructure.  That’s an overall assessment of everything from bridges to railroads.  To say they’re falling apart is dismissively juvenile.  A grade is just a letter, but the implications are dire.  In 2007, a section of Interstate 35 through Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145.  But, nearly 13 years later, the U.S. is still spending more on military intervention in the perpetually-chaotic Middle East than making serious efforts to rebuild, or even refurbish, highways like I35.  The ASCE estimates the nation will need up to 4.5 trillion USD to repair or rebuild much of our infrastructure by 2025.  It’s one critical issue on which elected officials of all political stripes might agree.  Instead, we have a president who wants to spend even more money to build a wall along the nation’s southern border with México.  I can’t even contemplate how much that would cost.  Knowing the U.S. federal government, though, it would be much more than initial estimates.  Still, as I move around my own local area, I notice roads that have been under construction since the start of the last decade!

Subterranean Power and Telecommunication Lines – In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria rolled over Puerto Rico as a borderline category 5 storm.  With an estimated cost of 94 billion USD, it stands as one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.  And Maria didn’t even reach the American mainland.  As with most such calamities, residents in the impact zones lived without power, which includes clean water.  Like Andrew did to Florida in 1992, and Katrina to the Gulf Coast in 2005, Maria destroyed a substantial number of power and telecommunication lines across Puerto Rico.  Our government’s response?  USD 5 billion in aid and a president tossing paper towels into a raucous crowd.

Tropical storm systems aren’t our only nemesis.  Currently, the U.S. is dealing with yet another round of powerful winter weather, with strong winds flipping vehicles and blizzard conditions hampering travel.  It’s not uncommon for massive weather phenomena to impact more than 100 million people.  Last October the Dallas, Texas area experienced a rash of tornado outbreaks.  But that’s just in one city in one state.  Other areas across the country have been struck by these meteorological vortexes.  And, of course, power and telecommunication lines are among the casualties.

The same happens after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.  Humans can never control Earth’s natural elements.  Every time we’ve tried, those elements remind us who holds the true power.  Still, we can lessen the severity of unruly weather by burying as many of our power and telecommunication lines underground as possible.  It’s nothing new.  People have been pushing this concept for years.  And there are the usual detractors.  Although a number of power and telecommunication lines have already been interred, opponents claim they’re not always more reliable than overhead lines.  While overhead lines experience more outages, subterranean lines are generally more difficult to access and repair when problems with them do arise.  Another obstacle, of course, is funding.  There are greater costs associated with the installation of subterranean lines.  The costs would have to be passed down to consumers somehow.  But, I feel it’s all worth the financial burden.  Ultimately, it costs people more to go without power – both in actual money and lives lost.  The expenses incurred with the initial installations and ongoing maintenance will more than pay for themselves in the ensuing years.

Space – Since humans first looked up to the sky and began studying the stars, we’ve wondered what it would be like to fly and visit another celestial body.  Now, we’ve taken flight and ventured onto the moon.  The next logical step would be Mars.  Plenty of people – from Elon Musk to Mars One – are making a concerted effort to get there.  In the 1970s, the U.S. became the first nation to reach Mars with the Viking I and II voyages.  We’ve done it again recently with the Curiosity mission.  The U.S. space program was good for the country and the world, as it spurred a number of technological developments; mainly with telecommunications, but also with engineering and robotics.

Sadly, if the U.S. wants to send humans to the moon now, we couldn’t do it.  We’ve let that go.  Again, it’s the war factor – more money spent on Middle East conflicts than on things that really matter.  But I would like to see the U.S. rejuvenate its space program and begin establishing a lunar colony; thus making interplanetary travel materialize from the pages of science fiction into reality.  And, of course, we should make a concerted effort to send a craft with humans to Mars by the end of this decade.  There’s more technology in a single Smart Phone than there was in all of the Apollo 11 lunar module.  We can make this happen.

Thousands of years ago humans thought Earth was the only place in the universe that harbored any semblance of life.  We’re starting to realize that’s not true.  We exist on this third rock from the sun, but I’m certain we have never been alone.  And, even if we are (by some odd fluke of nature), what’s to say we can’t venture outward and make our world more hospitable?  If we rise above our own political and social distractions, we’ll understand we can do better than this.  We have to do better.  I can’t imagine us living in a world of such chaos and uneasiness.  Throughout this next decade, we have to move forward.  Time will.  We have to follow it.

Photo by Josh Sorenson.

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Zapped

Weather-wise, Sunday, June 9, 2019, was supposed to be like Saturday, the 8th – hot and dry.  But I awoke that morning to a surprisingly silver-gray sky.  And I was startled around 12:30 local time, when the winds abruptly accelerated.  Within minutes hot and dry became wet and windy – and destructive.  Weather systems, of course, don’t always follow mortal meteorological predictions, and Sunday, June 9 is a prime example.  The sudden storm surprised even the most…ahem…seasoned local weather forecasters, as it engulfed the entire Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area.  Heavy winds shattered windows, dislodged massive trees, and – as anyone would expect – downed a multitude of power and telecommunication lines.

Literally tens of thousands of people suffered power outages for days; some not seeing it return until the following Friday.  Local utility companies had to seek outside help; both clearing debris – mainly the millions of shredded tree branches – and reinstalling power lines.  Many businesses remained shuttered for lack of power; thus costing millions in lost products (entire grocery stores had to be cleaned out, for example) and lost time.

One of my elderly aunts had no power for a couple of days and no landline telephone service for four days.  She had her cell phone, but as a widow living alone in a small, darkened 70-plus-year-old house, she was frightened.  Another aunt and uncle went without power for more than a day.  My uncle is old school in that he had stocked up on candles, flash lights, batteries and bottled water – all to accompany a generator and some firearms.  If it hadn’t been for that generator, everything in their refrigerator would have spoiled.  That happened to literally thousands of people across the area in the days following the storm; including a friend of mine who had no power for four days.  Like the aforementioned aunt, he also had a cell phone, but unlike the other two relatives, he has no generator.  So he sweltered, while throwing out good food and prayed no one would sneak into his house at night.  He didn’t go to work because he feared someone would do just that, while he was gone during the day.

This was a common sight throughout the Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area after the June 9 storm.

In 2018, a series of catastrophic wildfires terrorized California.  The Golden State has become accustomed to annual fires, but last year proved especially brutal – and deadly.  The blazes killed more than 100 people, consumed some 1.8 million acres (728,420 ha) of land, and cost roughly USD 3 billion.  In at least one instance, power lines weren’t just a casualty of fire; they were the cause.  The “Camp Fire” in Northern California was the worst of all the events; killing 85 people and destroying more than 13,000 structures.  The town of Paradise, for example, was almost completely incinerated.  It all might have been avoided, if some power lines hadn’t been live when they were toppled by high winds.  Recently, California’s Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay $1 billion in damages to the U.S. government.

This year has already proven both deadly and costly in terms of natural disaster.  Unusually heavy rains have generated massive flooding events across the country; especially, though, in the massive Mississippi River Basin and its tributaries.  Records are being broken in almost every state with rainfall and high water levels.  Here in Northeast Texas we’re coming to the end of one of the wettest springs since data has been gathered, starting in the 1880s.  The heavy rainfall has been great for lakes and dams, but there really is something called too much of a good thing.  Flooding isn’t just forcing people out of their homes.  It’s also drowning farming and ranch land; flushing out sewer systems; and shutting down highways.  And, as always, power and telecommunication lines are among the victims.

I’m fully aware that we mere mortals can NOT control the weather, even though we think we can.  As much as we believe our latest digital and electronic machinery, coupled with a ubiquitous cybercloud, can now predict where every hurricane will make landfall and which weather system will cause flooding, we still have no means of controlling any of nature’s wrath.  Yet, it’s hard for me to believe that, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we’re still dealing with downed power and telecommunication lines for long periods of time.

I’m not the first to speculate openly about this dilemma.  A variety of individuals – from average citizens to seasoned utility experts – have proposed interring as many power lines as possible throughout the U.S.  One factor, however, always rears its ugly head with each debate: money.  Time and labor are also critical elements – which of course, tie back into funding.  It seems rather simple on the face of it: dig as many trenches as possible and bury those lines in some kind of sturdy container.  But, as the old saying declares, everything looks great on paper.

In 2011, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin published a report, “Underground Electric Transmission Lines”, in which they state, “The estimated cost for constructing underground transmission lines ranges from 4 to 14 times more expensive than overhead lines of the same voltage and same distance.  A typical new 69 kV overhead single-circuit transmission line costs approximately $285,000 per mile as opposed to $1.5 million per mile for a new 69 kV underground line (without the terminals).  A new 138 kV overhead line costs approximately $390,000 per mile as opposed to $2 million per mile for underground (without the terminals).”

How would any regional or state utility firm fund such an extreme difference?  There are at least three immediate solutions:

  • Raise property taxes on individual homeowners.
  • Raise utility rates for homes and businesses.
  • A combination of both

All are plausible, but raising property taxes and utility rates is never popular.  If you want to see riots in the streets, starting jacking up taxes and utility rates on people; most of whom already feel they pay too much for such services.  I can empathize.  As much as we need power companies, it’s a proverbial love-hate relationship.  Kind of like what the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia.

Since the turn of this century, technical improvements with cable technology, grounding methods, and boring techniques have made the interment of power lines more possible.  That is, from a technological perspective, that goal is within reach.  But, remember that everything on paper analogy!

Initial costs for such a massive undertaking would have to go to planning and organizing.  We can’t just grab a back hoe and some shovels and start digging.  Deciding where and when to dig will take high-level planning from the most experienced infrastructure specialists.  Determining how far down to dig is another conundrum, as they have to look for, say, local water tables and even old mining shafts.  That alone will take years.

Once digging begins, a slew of other factors come into play: traffic disruptions, power outages and weather.  In residential areas, homeowners would have to grant permission to dig on their properties.  If they don’t allow it, how would a utility company get around that?  Would they invoke the concept of “eminent domain”?  Or would they somehow be able to avoid that particular property?  And how much would that little detour cost?  In any given neighborhood, one obstinate resident could delay the entire project – which, in turn, will cost money in lost time.  If local governments force the eminent domain option on someone, the situation might result in pricy litigation.  In worst case scenarios, it literally could turn fatal.

Knowing the U.S. federal government – that is, knowing its inability to budget wisely – the national debt could balloon under such a massive project.  Our global credit rating – which suffered greatly after the 2008 economic downturn – might, once again, be adversely impacted.

On a national security level, it could put us in a vulnerable position.  The city of Dallas, for example, with a population close to 3 million and home to a regional branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, could be in the midst of a major transfer of power sources (that is, switching to the new system) when a monster tornado strikes.  New York City could find itself in the same situation when another 9/11-style terrorist attack occurs.  San Francisco, home to another major branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, might be in the middle of construction when a catastrophic earthquake hits; much like the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor.  Chicago, the third most populous city in the U.S. and home to one of the busiest international airports in the world, as well as a major shipping port on Lake Michigan, might also be mired in a construction mess when a powerful sunstorm knocks out communication satellites.  Call me a pessimist, but we have to be prepared for those dreaded worst case scenarios, while hoping for the best results.

And that’s just the planning, construction and implementation of the systems.  Time capsules are a fun and delightful project for school kids.  But burying something like telephone lines comes with its own set of future costs and complications.

In their 2013 report, “Underground vs. Overhead: Power Line Installation-Cost Comparison and Mitigation”, Frank Alonso and Carolyn A.E. Greenwell, transmission line engineers with Science Application International Corporation (SAIC)*, highlighted and described these issues in detail.

Maintenance. The cost of maintenance for underground lines is difficult to assess.  With so many variables and assumptions final estimates would be subjective at best.  Predicting the performance of an underground line is difficult, yet the maintenance costs associated with an underground line are significant and one of the major impediments to the more extensive use of underground construction.

Major factors that impact the maintenance costs for underground transmission lines include:

Cable repairs. Underground lines are better protected against weather and other conditions that can impact overhead lines, but they are susceptible to insulation deterioration because of the loading cycles the lines undergo during their lifetimes.  As time passes, the cables’ insulation weakens, which increases the potential for a line fault.  If the cables are installed properly, this debilitating process can take years and might be avoided.  If and when a fault occurs, however, the cost of finding its location, trenching, cable splicing, and re-embedment is sometimes five to 10 times more expensive than repairing a fault in an overhead line where the conductors are visible, readily accessible and easier to repair.

In addition, easement agreements might require a utility to compensate property owners for disruption in their property use and for property damage caused by the repairs to the underground cables.

Line outage duration. The duration of underground line outages vary widely depending on the operating voltage, site conditions, failure, material availability and experience of repair personnel.  The typical repair duration of cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE), a solid dielectric type of underground cable, ranges from five to nine days.  Outages are longer for lines that use other nonsolid dielectric underground cables such as high-pressure, gas-filled (HPGF) pipe-type cable, high-pressure, fluid-filled (HPFF) pipe-type cable, and self-contained, fluid-filled (SCFF)-type cable.  In comparison, a fault or break in an overhead conductor usually can be located almost immediately and repaired within hours or a day or two at most.

During the extended line outages required for underground line repairs, services to customers are disrupted.  The length of customer outages can be mitigated using redundant feeders, but the duration of such outages is still longer than those associated with overhead lines, and they have additional costs associated with them.

Line modifications. Overhead power lines are easily tapped, rerouted or modified to serve customers; underground lines are more difficult to modify after the cables have been installed.  Such modifications to underground power lines are more expensive because of the inability to readily access lines or relocate sections of lines.”

As overwhelming as it is, I still feel it’s a worthwhile investment.  It’s a long-term process and a necessity for national security and prosperity.  Establishing the first telecommunication infrastructure (telegraph lines) in the 19th century was a massive undertaking, but ingenuity and determination made it happen.  Those same attributes were utilized with the construction of railroads and again with the interstate highway system.  We did it with the lunar and space shuttle programs.  Remember, the ancient Romans built the Colosseum in the 1st century C.E., most of which remains standing.  But at least they had wheels and large beasts to assist them.  The Mayans and the Aztecs built massive stone temples without wheels or draft animals.  The U.S., or any developed nation, surely could place thousands of miles of power and telecommunication lines underground.

Homes leveled by the Camp Fire on Valley Ridge Drive in Paradise, California, December 2018.  Photo: Noah Berger / Associated Press.

This series of photos shows the extent of the damage throughout the Dallas / Fort Worth area following the June 9 storm.

*Full disclosure: I worked at SAIC’s Dallas office from 2002 to 2010, first as a document scanner and archivist, then as a technical writer.

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