Our Politics of Powerlessness, Continued

Terrance Heath

I’d started thinking that I was too hard on our power company last week, when I agreed with Gov. O’Malley that their service was less reliable than power in some Third World countries. I was starting to think maybe that was a bit hyperbolic.

That is until I read the Post this morning. Apparently, Pepco is proud of its pitiful performance.

A Pepco vice president told Maryland regulators on Tuesday that the company was “not terribly disappointed” with its response to recent storms that left nearly a half-million people in the dark, while another vice president disclosed that the utility ranked among the worst power providers in surveys of day-to-day reliability.

…Senior Pepco executives defended their performance during day-long questioning at a packed hearing held by the Maryland Public Service Commission, fending off questions from polite but at times disapproving commissioners.

“It’s not going to be business as usual going forward,” Commissioner Lawrence Brenner cautioned the executives. “We’re going to come up with things to measure you by. And we’re going to have to have consequences.”

The executives repeatedly asserted that they responded well to a challenging and unpredictable situation but that they nonetheless plan to make improvements. They stressed that increasing reliability would increase costs but stopped short of saying they would seek a rate increase.

Actually, their performance has already been measured. It’s far below average. In fact, Pepco is in the bottom 25% when it comes to service interruptions.

Pepco’s record on service interruptions to its customers has been below the median for utilities nationwide for several years, its executive said under questioning from the Maryland Public Service Commission on Tuesday.

And for the past two years, Pepco has been in the bottom 50 percent or 25 percent of that performance measure, said Bill Gausman, Pepco’s senior vice president for asset management and planning.

“We strive to move toward the first or second quartile,” he said.

I’ve tried to find the source of that information, and the best I could find was from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, which put Pepco in the bottom 50% in its scoring energy utilities. In fact Peco’s score (as Pepco Holdings, since 2004) has trended downward since 2004, down 9.1 points from its first score, despite a 2.9 point bump in 2009.

Pepco defended it’s rating as based on day-to-day service, and not major storms. But here’s the thing, Gov. O’Malley says there have been major thunderstorms, but that we’re seeing more outages during less severe thunderstorms.

I can’t say he’s wrong. Every morning this week, even when there was no storm the night before, we’ve awakened to blinking alarm clocks signaling that sometime while we slept there was at least one power outage. Maybe more. Even during the day, again with no storms in the area this weekend, the lights have flickered a few times just about every day.

I’ll give Pepco this much: they’re probably right that 90% of the outages are due to falling branches.

Pepco officials said that 90 percent of the recent outages were caused by falling branches, most from trees on private property whose owners often deny access to trimming crews. The first and biggest of three recent storms, on July 25, broke with little warning, but the executives said they quickly activated response crews and called in reinforcements from other companies. Pepco sent out so many crews that additional workers might not have hastened the return of power, they said.

I’m not sure how many of the trees are on private property, but I’m willing to bet the culprits in the outages in our area are probably the trees that line East-West Highway. Twice, in the past four to six weeks trees have come crashing down on East-West Highway, taking down power lines and closing the road.

After a major outage a couple of weeks ago, we drove down East-West highway on our way to the grocery store. On the way we counted at least half a dozen Pepco “cherry pickers” trimming trees like gangbusters. This weekend, after another outage, the sides of the road on East-West Highway looked like a crime scene in a lumber yard, with sections of newly-cut tree trunk surrounded by yellow police ribbons.

We have a lot of trees in Montgomery county and apparently we like them. But, as much as I hope the recent trimming will cut down on outages, it seems like only a temporary solution, and perhaps a non-solution.

At least some people have wondered if Pepco’s tree trimming has made trees more likely to fall, by making them less stable.

If a tree falls in a windstorm, should careless pruning be blamed?

Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula wondered aloud in a recent Gaithersburg City Council meeting whether Potomac Electric Power Company’s tree trimming policies were at fault in some of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of trees and limbs that fell during the July 25 storm that ravaged Montgomery County and left as many as 301,000 of the company’s customers without power.

Gaithersburg officials say they anticipate collecting more than 800 cubic yards of fallen trees and limbs in the city — waste still is being rounded up — and the county lost track of how much green waste it collected after the storm, concentrating on clearing over measuring.

“Trimming can limit (trees falling over) in some cases by thinning, but often what they do is just cut it away from their line and (the trees) grow more smaller branches and it probably has more wind resistance than if it had been properly thinned,” Drzyzgula said at the meeting.

I’ve seen evidence of this myself, where so many branches have been cut away from the power line that the the tree looked more likely to topple over. I’ve seen trees with half the branches cut off one side. I’m not an expert on trees, but wouldn’t that change in weight throw the tree off balance?

Besides, it’s not just trees under the power lines. Trees that are near power lines can fall and take out power lines if they’re tall enough.

It would make sense, at least to me, to simply not have trees underneath power lines, or at least have strict guidelines about what kind of trees may be planted. (Trees that have a tendency to spread out would not make the list.) Where there are trees near power lines, maybe strategic thinning would help.

In the end, though, I think burying the lines is probably the best way to prevent outages. It’s the most expensive, but it’s not like we don’t have the money. Dean Baker explained it better than I can.

We are sitting here with close to 10% of our workforce unemployed. This is because of a lack of demand. If there were more demand from any source, this would employ many of these workers. These are workers who have the necessary skills and desire to work. Remember: the vast majority of them were working before the housing bubble collapsed.

…This is where DC’s power failure comes in. What would be the problem if Congress dispensed 400-500bn dollars to the states to be spent on upgrading infrastructure such as electric power lines, mass transit systems, and water and sewage treatment facilities? The stimulus passed by Congress last year started on this path, but did not go nearly far enough.

This spending could be financed by requiring the Federal Reserve Board to buy and hold the bonds used to pay for the projects. If the Fed held the bonds, then the interest would be paid to the Fed, which, in turn, would then be rebated to the Treasury. That means that there is no additional interest burden on our children for the deficit hawks to whine about.

Instead, our children will get a modern infrastructure that doesn’t jeopardise the country’s economic and physical health.

We spend far less on infrastructure than other countries, and that has implications for economic growth.

America spends only about 2 percent of GDP per year on infrastructure investment (this includes federal, state, local, and private-sector spending). By contrast, that number is about 5 percent in Europe and between 9 percent and 12 percent in China.3 In developed economies, the average is about 3 percent of GDP, and for developing economies it is around 6 percent. While the United States is trying to make a dent in its massive repair bill, other countries are lapping us in new investment — further shrinking the competitiveness gap between America and the rest of the world.

With the economy slumping, fuel costs rising over time, and private capital looking for new investment opportunities, infrastructure projects can boost our global competitiveness and create jobs at the same time. Many studies have pointed to a positive correlation between such investment and economic growth.4

Economic analyses over the last 20 years have attempted to quantify those benefits, and have come up with a wide range of estimates depending on how the funds were spent. Almost all analysts agree, however, that public spending generally produces “positive economic returns.”5 A recent World Bank study even estimates that under the right conditions, “a 1% increase in a country’s infrastructure stock is associated with a 1% increase in the level of GDP.”6

Infrastructure is defined as transportation (highways, roads, air, water, and rail), utilities (water, gas, electricity, and telecommunications), and some other public facilities such as schools, prisons, and the postal system. In short, it is the nerve, sinew, and muscle of our economy and our society. When these networks and systems get fatigued and run down, it is impossible for America to operate at full health.

Besides, it’s more than just a local issue. Our national energy infrastructure gets D+; not much better than our local excuse for a power company. (I guess we get what we pay for.)

The U.S. generation and transmission system is at a critical point requiring substantial investment in new generation, investment to improve efficiencies in existing generation, and investment in transmission and distribution systems. The transmission and distribution system has become congested because growth in electricity demand and investment in new generation facilities have not been matched by investment in new transmission facilities. This congestion virtually prohibits outages required for proper maintenance and can lead to system wide failures in the event of unplanned outages. Electricity demand has increased by about 25% since 1990 while construction of transmission facilities decreased by about 30 percent. While annual investment in new transmission facilities has generally declined or been stagnant during the last 30 years, there has been an increase in investment during the past 5 years. Substantial investment in generation, transmission, and distribution are expected over the next two decades and it has been projected that electric utility investment needs could be as much as $1.5 to $2 trillion by 2030. Some progress in grid reinforcement has been made since 2005, but public and government opposition, difficult permitting processes, and environmental requirements are often restricting the much-needed modernization. 6

Congested transmission paths, or “bottlenecks,” now affect many parts of the grid across the country. One recent estimate concludes that power outages and power quality disturbances cost the economy between $25 billion and $180 billion annually. These costs could soar if outages or disturbances become more frequent or longer in duration. There are also operational problems in maintaining voltage levels. Transmission problems have been compounded by the incomplete transition to fair and efficient competitive wholesale electricity markets. Because the existing transmission system was not designed to meet present demand, daily transmission constraints or “bottlenecks” increase electricity costs to consumers and increase the risk of blackouts. 3

Plus, isn’t it a national security issue? At some point in the past couple of weeks, I turned to my husband and said, “If a storm did all this, imagine what a terrorist attack could do?”

As it turns out, we don’t have to imagine. It’s already a reality.

Cyberspies have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system, according to current and former national-security officials.

The spies came from China, Russia and other countries, these officials said, and were believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls. The intruders haven’t sought to damage the power grid or other key infrastructure, but officials warned they could try during a crisis or war.

… The U.S. electrical grid comprises three separate electric networks, covering the East, the West and Texas. Each includes many thousands of miles of transmission lines, power plants and substations. The flow of power is controlled by local utilities or regional transmission organizations. The growing reliance of utilities on Internet-based communication has increased the vulnerability of control systems to spies and hackers, according to government reports.

The sophistication of the U.S. intrusions — which extend beyond electric to other key infrastructure systems — suggests that China and Russia are mainly responsible, according to intelligence officials and cybersecurity specialists. While terrorist groups could develop the ability to penetrate U.S. infrastructure, they don’t appear to have yet mounted attacks, these officials say.

It is nearly impossible to know whether or not an attack is government-sponsored because of the difficulty in tracking true identities in cyberspace. U.S. officials said investigators have followed electronic trails of stolen data to China and Russia.

I don’t pretend to know what the solution is. But it isn’t Pepco’s brand of complacency with being substandard. Neither is our apparent satisfaction with a “D+” infrastructure.

Locally and nationally, we’ve got to do better.

Comments