We’ve seen it again with Hurricane Sandy. A storm rages, thousands of trees are blown down, and the power goes out for millions of homes, sometimes for weeks. It’s so common that we take it for granted: whether it’s a blizzard, a cyclone, or an ice storm, storms are followed by power outages as surely as darkness follows the day. But – why? The answer isn’t rocket science. It isn’t even airplane science. In fact, it’s barely bicycle science. It’s because the storm, the trees, and the power lines are all above the ground.
So, when the wind blows — violently – the trees and the power lines get tangled up in each other, fall down, and break. Cut the connection, and electricity can’t flow. We’re powerless.
Now, as it happens, I have a lot of experience with storms and trees. As an ecologist, I’ve done research on several forests damaged by hurricanes, including Joan (Nicaragua, 1988), which severely damaged 1.25 million acres of tropical rainforest, and Isabel (Maryland, 2003) which knocked down about 25% of the canopy trees in the forest that’s literally a five minutes’ walk away from my house.
I know that even when well below the maximum possible intensity (Joan was a category 2, and Isabel was down to a tropical storm when it got to our part of central Maryland), storms will wipe out lots of trees. The same goes for electrical and telephone poles — which are, of course, just ex-trees.
Without electricity, life itself….
When the power goes out, so do a lot of other things that are vital to Life as We Know It. Water can’t be pumped through our pipes, so we can’t wash or flush our toilets. Gasoline can’t be pumped, so our cars, buses, and trucks run out of fuel. Our communications – both the phones, and the Internet connections that are supposedly “Powered by …” software but are really powered by electricity, lose that power and become useless. And of course, we lose the lights, the televisions, the coffee makers, and all the other things that make metropolitan life bearable. No water, no gas, no communications, no light, no entertainment – modern society becomes impossible until the power comes back.
The Pyramid Solution
So, what’s the solution? I like trees and I like electricity, so I don’t want to do without either one, but they don’t have to be in the same space. Since storms are likely to stay above the earth’s surface, and about 4/5 of your average tree does as well (you know, that sunlight-photosynthesis thing), the best candidate for underground living is the power line.
This is basically the pyramid solution from architecture. The only kind of building that cannot possibly fall down, no matter how much the wind blows or the ground shakes, is a pyramid. Why? Because it’s already fallen down. The Egyptians figured that out, and the result has lasted millenia. Similarly, a storm can’t >knock the power lines to the ground – no matter how many trees come crashing down – if they’re already underground.
Notes for underground
So, take those power lines, and don’t Hang ‘Em High—Bury ‘Em! Not just the dead – the live wires too!
This is actually common practice in other developed countries. But doesn’t it cost a lot more? Yes it does, and I have a lot of experience with that too. Fifteen years ago when we built our house in rural Maryland, we got a rude shock – no pun intended – when we were about to move in. We had made the necessary cuts in the budget – keep the garage, but cut out one of the bedrooms – so as to be able to (just) afford it. Then Allegheny Power, our local electrical utility, told us that because half of mile of the power lines to the house would have to be buried, it would cost us an extra $ 13,000. No occupancy without electricity, and no negotiating on price with a company having a local monopoly. We were stuck, and had to go (even more) deeply into debt just to be able to move in.
Now, even that cost was not nearly the “as much as $ 2.1 million per mile” estimated in a recent Washington Post article. (Only one percent as much). But there’s no denying it’s a cost. However, as we see the costs of Sandy – tens of billions of dollars, lost time, human suffering, and lost lives – can’t we finally see that it makes more sense to pay it up front, rather than one storm at a time?
A bit more complicated?
Have I oversimplified this? Sure, I admit I have. The power goes out because of other things besides trees – flooded basements, lightning striking substations, ice freezing on the wires, attacks by Godzilla…
So, it’s a bit more than bicycle science – automobile science, say. In today’s America, we know how to do science. Separation of the things we want – the trees above, the power lines below — is something that we can manage. And we ought to, if we want to be resilient rather than vulnerable in the face of climate change.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.