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A lesson we can take from Lansing's Christmas week catastrophe but probably won't

by: Eric B.

Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 11:16:37 AM EST

In case you haven't been paying attention, following last week's ice storm, parts of Lansing just yesterday got their electrical service restored. I understand the city's electric company will extend some kind of annoyance credit (probably so low that it itself will aggravate things) to affected people; and, of course, there's a video clip of America's Shoutiest Mayor yelling, "Get out of here," at some heckler during a press conference (one assumes it's someone who showed up for the free heat). Let me sum up the rest for you: Ice storm sweeps through lower Michigan and leaves thousands without electricity, many of whom didn't have it restored until after Christmas (and some of whom still have no power). You might have seen friends on social media cooking Christmas dinner on grills outside in the cold as opposed to inside in the oven. This was the year that people celebrated Christmas by grilling steaks.

How many people lost power? The number changed several times over the week. It's not that new people lost power. It's that there was never any good way to measure who'd lost it. So it was never a firm number but an estimation. It also wasn't exclusively confined to the city of Lansing, but something that occured to a lesser extent over the entire region. A couple of media outlets even devoted coverage to Christmas without electricity.

Alas, it needn't have been. After the great power outage of 2006, we were warned that our outdated electrical transmission network was increasingly unable to do its job. It's old and based on outdated technology (electromotive in a digital world). The longer we went without fixing it, we were at risk for an increasing number of potentially dangerous power outages. This manifested itself a few years later, when DTE's competence in handling an outage in the Detroit area was questioned.

Questions about the state's grid were again raised two years ago by the 25x25 ballot proposal. There were issues about the montly bill cost for consumers (questions that were prompted by inflated, misleading figures that were never sorted out by the media at the time), and on the fringes about how much investment would be required upfront to modernize the grid. After the proposal was defeated, those questions died away, unanswered.

This brings us to last week's ice storm. A lot of attention has focused on how poorly Lansing's municipal utility handled it. To the extent that they handled it within the frame of the existing technology, it's justified. To the extent that people knew that we were increasingly at risk for an outage like the one that happened, to the scope that it did, and that it was because our grid system is old and decaying, there are plenty of people who share in the culpability. Word on the street is that Lansing's BWL last year started serious discussions about modernizing the city's electrical grid. Despite the city utility's bungled performance last week, in that respect they're light years ahead of the state's major utilities. If over the holidays you had to endure a lecture from your insane Tea Party uncle about government monitoring of your electrical use through smart meters, you have an idea where Consumers and DTE are devoting their resources. It's great, because it'll mean more accurate billing and more efficient electrical delivery in the future, but getting a better distribution network going means less electricity lost in transmission. As for outages, it would mean fewer of them since most concepts of a smart grid involve making the system more flexible so utilities can redirect juice based on demand and delivery routes; and since it would produce a more precise picture, it would mean that in the event of an outage that it would be much shorter lived.

Unfortunately and predictably, following last week's outages, a lot of ire has been directed at the people responsible for fixing things right this very second. It's even worse considering that they are a worthy lot, because it helps obscure the fact that last week's outages were a problem years in the making and one that people have repeatedly said were likely.

Eric B. :: A lesson we can take from Lansing's Christmas week catastrophe but probably won't
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My take (0.00 / 0)
I thought the criticism of the BWL were mostly misguided, if even I understood why the people who lost power were more concerned about it being turned back on than anything else.

What I continue to find stunning and worrisome in its lack of coverage is prevention.  People were b%tching about BWL not having an online power outage map, or how tree trimming left something to be desired and a plethora of other things.  All of these are ultimately important points - really, there are, and there is really no excuse for them not having done that - but this addresses the problems after the fact.

For me, the question is why are so many lines above ground in the first place?  Here it is 2013, and we still have lines up on unfinished wooden polls across this country as if we're in the days of the telegraph and buggy.  Yes, the costs to bury lines are expensive up front, maybe really expensive.  But, look at what happens when you don't bury them.  

Burying lines presents its own troubles, but short of a major earthquake or a massive flood, it's a far superior answer to tree trimming and finding quicker ways to get the power back on.  It prevents power from being lost on the scale it was in the first place.

Oh, and for those that don't think the climate is changing, welcome to the 21st century.  Michigan's always been far enough north that we rarely got icestorms these bad.  That stuff usually stayed south of us.  But, now the jet stream is getting all wonky on us.

It costs up to (0.00 / 0)
ten times as much to bury wires as to hang them on poles. There is also the problem of repairing them--it's really hard to figure out exactly where the trouble is. Insulation breaks down eventually, and wires must be dug up to fix them, which in the middle of a Michigan winter...  

[ Parent ]
I mean (0.00 / 0)
If the costs are the excuse, then we can expect this kind of response every time we get 100-year ice storms, then.  We may have been able to shave off a day or two if all other things are improved, but that's it.  

Again, given the overtime and th like, this utility has to weigh upfront costs against costs out the back end.  Over 40% of BWL customers lost power sometime during the storm and the aftermath.  This is supposedly the highest percentage of power outages of any utility in the state in history.  That's completely unacceptable for a city in a First World nation short of something like a massive earthquake or tornado/windstorm.  Sorry.

Bury the lines.  In phases, if you must, and when you can, when money is tight, and when physically possible and appropriate.  But, bury. the. damned. lines.  This isn't some Lagos slum.  You get what you pay for...and you get what you don't, too.

[ Parent ]
I hear Lagos has undertaken some great infrastructure repairs of late. (0.00 / 0)
Kidding.  Well, the business district and wealthy residential enclaves I'm sure have done substantial capitol improvements.  It is wild how their economy has grown.  Reminds me of a certain automotive boomtown 100 years ago.    

Great Lakes, Great Times.

[ Parent ]
I know it sounds good... (0.00 / 0)
but it's more costly and less reliable than you might think. $150k per mile in "easy" terrain, up to $3 million in rough areas. Good overview here: http://www.nashuatelegraph.com...

Maintenance issues are a nightmare with buried lines--it's all good until something breaks.

[ Parent ]

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