It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, August 29, 2011

Stray Thoughts as Montreal Loses Power to Irene

My sub-Arctic hometown took some damage from my wife's tropical storm namesake. Sort of odd from my point of view but probably not worth your attention. However, I did think a conversation from the comments to that report was worth noting:
What sickens me is how every time there is a storm thousands (in the U.S. MILLIONS) go without power because stupid utility companies hang wires on poles. Hello people...wires on poles are NOT weatherproof, haven't you noticed by now?

B.C. is full of trees, as is Qu├ębec and every storm brings tree branches (or ice) taking power lines out. Canadians are suckers to put up with this nonsense in a climate like ours, yet they just string up more wires and down they come again next storm.

For your information, Europeans put their utility power lines underground, and have been doing so since electrical power became available in Victorian times, but Canada continues to copy the U.S. and other third world Latin American countries in trying to "make do" with wires on poles.

When are we going to say "enough is enough" and force these power companies to start burying wires? How many deaths and blacked out neighbourhoods are acceptable to power companies before they start doing something? How come Europe can do it and we can't?"

******

You're right.

We just had our roads torn up for a whole summer in my neighbourhood and they wouldn't bury the lines. Lines, I might add, that have shredded insulation covers that are rotting and falling onto the sidewalks because they are very OLD.

Why? Because Bell and Hydro didn't want to pay for it. Yet they come twice a year with a crew of at least two guys to trim the trees all along the street. Every year. I wonder how much that costs.

And we were an area hit hard by the ice storm years back.

Par for the course for corporations as well as governments.
It's not only stupid and dangerous, it's ugly and demoralizing. Why do we do this?

I think it's because of the constant barrage of propaganda in North America that the collective will is powerless to change anything. (Anything set up by the collective will in the past is treated as if it were mysteriously handed down from heaven as if on stone tablets.)

Of course, this idea is spreading in Europe as well. It seems to be leaving them in something of a quandary. If worse comes to worst and economic havoc ensues, in America Obama will be blamed for it, of course.

24 comments:

manuel "moe" g said...

It is more "efficient", for some definition of "efficient". It is explained in Hayek, for some definition of Hayek.

Doug said...

As my brother remarked, folks would find it remarkable if we hung our sewer and water lines from wooden sticks stuck in the ground, yet somehow it's normal to submit our electrical infrastructure to vagaries of weather, drunk drivers, etc.

Big parts of our distribution network were built in expedient haste by entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, bad habits were set early and are now virtually impossible to shake off.

What's jarring is to travel to places where local distribution is underground and then return to the crazy, disturbing visual wiring mess we normally don't see.

Michael Tobis said...

+1 moe

Steve Bloom said...

Well, FWIW I thought of it too, and was waiting for the inevitable post. :)

Belette said...

> For your information, Europeans put their utility power lines underground, and have been doing so since electrical power became available in Victorian times

Twaddle. We have, and always have had, plenty of overhead lines.

Michael Tobis said...

Abbey Road in London (sorry, I don't know the UK very well, so I resort to a street of some renown, but on inspection I take this to be a standard pleasant upper middle class neighborhood commercial shopping district.)

Sheffield Road (about the equivalent in Chicago.)

Chicago at least has the sense to run most of the power lines down the alleys.

I think the point is not that there are no overhead lines elsewhere, it is that buried lines are essentially unheard of over here.

Michael Tobis said...

I would like to note that the bike lanes and saplings in the Chicago picture are the recent doings of a notoriously powerful mayor and are vastly better than can be found in most American cities.

David B. Benson said...

Power lines in France
http://www.flickr.com/photos/46991550@N07/4409843262/

David B. Benson said...

Portugal
http://www.123rf.com/photo_2600830_high-tension-power-line-near-a-rural-village.html

David B. Benson said...

Poland
http://www.123rf.com/photo_2434069_warning--electric-installation--old-polish-sign.html

David B. Benson said...

Norway
http://www.123rf.com/photo_2039205_power-supply.html

Nick Barnes said...

In Europe, most *high-voltage power distribution* lines are overhead, for values of "high-voltage" over perhaps 10,000 volts (lower in rural areas) - I'm making that number up but I'm sure teh Goog knows the truth. But most *medium-voltage power distribution* lines are buried, for values of "medium-voltage" between 200 and I-don't-know-but-let's-say 10,000 volts (lower in rural areas). In the US (not counting NYC, where everything is underground), almost everything is overhead, from the power station to the home.

The effect is that most US urban and suburban streets have huge amounts of fairly large-gauge overhead cable, and great barrel-sized transformers, sometimes buzzing and spitting, high up on poles, whereas in equivalent streets in the UK there is nothing overhead except (many or most places) telephone wiring.

Nick Barnes said...

(in other words, pictures of overhead high-tension lines are irrelevant. Show us a picture of a residential street with overhead three-phase 220V).

David B. Benson said...

Nick Barnes --- The pix in Norway was adequate [if you had bothered to look], but view carefully
http://www.myczechrepublic.com/photos/czech-countryside/church-snow-mountains.jpg.html
to see the power poles leading to the church.

Moral: Do not overgeneralize.

David B. Benson said...

But yes, voters in North America need to convice theeir state governments (and so the utility commissioners) to bury distribution lines:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=power-outages-continue-in

Oale said...

There's some residential density when digging those to ground is feasible, I've been told. But yes, even the overhead lines on my homestreet (FTR, some 3 miles off the city centre, about the closest overhead lines are found) are of 540V, for the high-voltage appliances some people use (you pay extra to get that in your house). The transformer on top of the pole has seen better days. When it blows it's time to switch to the ground line installed some 5years back. On countryside one has to take the contraction of the lines due temperature changes into account, not nice to lose power in wintertime due snapping of the line. And of course there are some overactive voles and moles present.

Oale said...

Oops, not sure about the overhead voltage on those on our street, but anyway it's higher than main in the house...

EliRabett said...

It's cheap

Pangolin said...

Apparently there are thermal issues with burying high voltage power lines that make it much more expensive than overhead cable. These issues seem to be more manageable with residential distribution.

FWIW much of suburban and urban California has buried power lines at the neighborhood level. Areas that still retain overhead cable from source to end user are significantly rural, older buildings and poorer.

We also still get blackouts in storms due to dropped lines or fallen trees. Occasionally high tension lines are shut down due to brush fires or heat and service is resumed after inspection.

Marion Delgado said...

I was surprised to read Montreal was subarctic - I used to do various things at our subarctic conferences (mostly on permafrost) at UAF and I don't remember Montrealites there - perhaps the distance is too far or I wasn't paying attention. Also, I lived in Montreal for a while and it seemed very different to Fairbanks, where I'm from. That said, I suspect the difference is between being barely subarctic (vs. temperate) and barely subarctic (vs. arctic). At what point will Montreal (45°, on the St. Lawrence Seaway and not that far from the ocean) not be in the subarctic, I wonder. I'd say in our lifetimes.

And Fairbanks(65°, entirely inland) being closer to the pole, will be squarely subarctic. While the Arctic Circle designates the Arctic geographically, as a climate zone, I think it's headed north pretty rapidly.

Michael Tobis said...

No, Montreal is not really subarctic. But it really is damned cold some of the time and the snow does pile up all winter. There ought to be a word for "places where snow piles up all winter", a fuzzy sort of line that passes through about Albany and Madison to my knowledge, and is gradually moving poleward of course.

Gravityloss said...

The Euro and Greece and everything thing would warrant some talking but it doesn't really happen, everybody's just too quick with some generalizations.

That article too. Finland has something like 80% of its trade by the sea. We are practically an island in that sense.

David B. Benson said...

Maybe Montreal can be classified a sub-sub-Arctic.

Aaron said...

Guys trimming trees and fixing downed lines are operations that can be used to justify rate hikes.

The capital cost to put the lines underground would come out of the shareholder's capital -- and as they have so often told us, utility companies are owned by widows and orphans that can not afford the cost.