Lindsay | |
Utilities won't spend the money to fix the system

As the clean up continues across North Eastern America, 1.7m were still without power Tuesday night according to Associated Press.The realization is dawning that if you live outside a major conurbation with its underground power grid, you can no longer depend on your electricity supply. That means each household ensuring it has its own backup, including batteries and a means of surviving for several days without the Utility.

Consolidated Edison “has gotten so unbelievably bad,” David Kirschstein, an 83-year-old retired patent lawyer,  told the New York Times. Kirschstein has been living in the same house in Chappaqua, N.Y., for 44 years.
“The winters used to be much worse, but even with the big snows, we had nothing like the outages over the past four or five years,” he continued. People who make preparations for the next big outage can end up deciding they no longer need the Utility company at all.A year ago, Mr. Kirschstein bought his first generator, which came in handy when his power went out this weekend. “It seemed worth the money to get the generator because Con Ed is terrible,” he said.

In fact, for increasing numbers of people, a generator is seen as a necessity, if an expensive and imperfect one.Eric Nowlin, vice president for customer service for Grainger, an industrial supply company, said his generator sales around Tropical Storm Irene were tenfold what is normal for that time of year. He said during and after the tropical storm, Grainger sold “thousands and thousands” of generators.

“This kind of weather is becoming a fact of life,” said another upstate New Yorker. “In the last year, we’ve had Irene, which could be the 500-year storm, plus three 10-year storms, a 50-year storm and a 100-year storm.”

Along with the downed trees across the driveway, the region’s latest freak storm, has left something else in its wake: increasing unease about just what is going on and what it means for the vast majority outside the relative stability of an underground urban power grid. Experts say the violent weather of the past few years in the Northeast is stressing the 20th century above-ground utility grid as never before, along with the people who depend on it.

Few solutions are in sight other than making your own arrangements on a household or community level. A report by the Edison Institute updated at the end of 2010 said that over the past 10 years, at least 11 states studied putting utility lines underground — usually after devastating storms — only to find it too expensive. “To date, no state utility commission has recommended wholesale undergrounding of the utility infrastructure,” it concluded.

Utilities have fallen under sharp official criticism for their lagging performance.”I join with hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts consumers in expressing my outrage at the current situation,” Senator Scott Brown wrote in a letter to that state’s electric companies.”Our state’s utilities received similar criticism during the response to Hurricane Irene, and I am concerned that lessons learned from that storm have already been forgotten,” he wrote.

At a hearing last week convened by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, state Attorney General Martha Coakley delivered a stern message.

“Failure to have and execute emergency response and restoration plans not only affects customers, but also our local first responders who at best face unnecessary costs and at worst are exposed to dangerous conditions,” Coakley said in her statement. “Customers and our cities and towns deserve better, and the Department should strive to ensure a regulatory environment where these failures are eliminated where possible and ensure that we are not back before the Department after the next storm.

”There was ample time to prepare for this early-season storm. Forecasters were warning all last week that the combination of heavy, wet snow and trees still in full leaf would wreak havoc with power lines. But utilities seem willing merely to let their customers wait in the dark and cold.

Similar sentiments were being expressed in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

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