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The Wind Doesn’t Blow Underground: Lessons from Hurricane Sandy’s Impact on Electricity Supplies

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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.

Trees knocked down by Hurricane Sandy, Astoria, Queens, New York City. PHOTO: shamballisima, Flickr.com

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.

Despite the assertion, your computer does not actually derive energy from a small penguin inside it.

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!

Hang ‘Em High: not the right idea.

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…

Another cause of power outages.

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.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming Tags:

About the author: Doug Boucher is an expert in preserving tropical forests to curtail global warming emissions. He has been participating in United Nations international climate negotiations since 2007 and his expertise has helped shape U.S. and U.N. policies. He holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan. See Doug's full bio.

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  • http://None John M. Ackerman, M.D.

    Biosolids produced by wastewater treatment plants are utilized as a fertilizer amendment on much agricultural land. Burn it and collect the methane as an alternative energy instead of waiting for wind storms that will““ cause even more methane emission from agricultural lands converted to huge amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere?!

  • Deb Carey

    Getting off the grid, using solar panels, is a good solution, but what many folks are doing is really distributed solar generation. Here solar panels are put on residential houses and the electricity they generate goes into the grid system. When the solar generated electricity is not needed by the homeowner it is sent into the grid. When the homeowner needs more than they generate, they get it from the grid. Otherwise the homeowner gets it from their panels. The grid is still part of the equation.

  • Rose Marie Wilson

    No new housing developments should ever be allowed to be constructed without first putting ALL the electrical lines underground. Unfortunately, it’s too late for mature developed areas like Long Island, NY. We are stuck with 100s of streets, lined with mature trees, many of which have had the center branches cut out of them in a V shape, to accommodate electrical wires strung between the light poles and electric poles, also lining the same streets. This uglifies and weakens the trees. My attitude is the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) should move their wires, instead of massacreing trees; but they can’t. The local gov’ts, however, years ago ignorantly planted those trees, which were destined to grow too tall, along the streets. As the old trees are lost to storms or die of old age, or being weakened by LIPA, they should be replaced by “wire-friendly” tree species, which will not grow tall enough to affect the wires. This is the best general alternative for LI. It would be astronomically costly to bury the wires on LI, which include wires for Verizon services and Cablevision services. The taxpayers of Nassau and Suffolk are already too overburdened with property and sales taxes, in addition to income taxes. We CANNOT take on any more costs. If it had been done when these neighborhoods were built 50-60 years ago, or within 10-15 years after, it would have cost a lot less and made sense. An even better thing, now, would be for all of us to get off the grid and install solar panels. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about storms, or much of anything. We’d all be better off with less dependence on regional or local grids, which are vulnerable to weather, sabotage, hackers or other malfeasance.

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