10 November 2012

The Electric is Off! Blame From Hypocrites.

In 2012, there were two events which resulted in lengthy electrical power outages in West Virginia.

The first was the “derecho” of 29 June, which was the equivalent of a non-spinning hurricane.  It left 3/4 of the state without power for one or two weeks. Fortunately for our friends to the East, the barrier of the Blue Ridge attenuated the storm somewhat.  (The prevailing winds here are west to east.)

The second was the combination of Hurricane Sandy and a cold front which occurred early last week. A few areas of West Virginia are still without power.

I’ve seen a lot of colleagues, police officers and others who have been or still are out of power. (The power did stay on here at the head of the Valley of Coal Run.) From them, I have heard a lot of “darn it’s,” and a few “boy, that sucks.”

What I have not heard is any whining or deep angst or anger at the power companies. These people carried on with their lives. The hard-working powerline crews from faraway have received warm welcomes in Mother West Virginia.

Likewise, the most recent storm interrupted power in large parts of New Jersey, southeastern New York, Long Island and elsewhere in that area.

Oh, the humanity!

Those out of power (forgive me if I don’t use the word “victims”) are complaining bitterly. Actually, I don’t mean to be highly critical of them.   Theirs is a different culture. In a densely populated area, they are more dependent on a technological and social infrastructure and less prepared for some of the natural vicissitudes of life. They do not have the tradition of the long hunter or the stoic mountaineer.

But the people who should damn well know better who are also bitching and moaning include Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his ilk.

They have attacked the power companies. They point out that the electrical generation/distribution system could have been much more robust.  They point out that some substantial part of the power outages could have been prevented.

And that’s true.

So why didn’t the power companies prevent them?

Placing all the blame on the power companies is, at best, really, really simplistic.

Electric utilities are very capital intensive, usually monopolistic and therefore highly regulated. Government has something between an incentive and a mania to keep electric rates as low as possible. Indeed, electric rates in the United States are quite low just as our usage is quite high.

The current generation, transmission and switching systems work. They are antiquated, but they work.  They are not robust enough to resist disasters, but disasters don’t happen very often and upgrading the systems would be damnably expensive.

It would be politically inexpedient to increase electric rates drastically to beef up what the industry and the governments know is an antiquated system.

For that matter, doing what would be necessary might be unacceptable once the plans are publicized. New York City wants everything underground. New York City is right beside an ocean. Water runs downhill. If you get high water (like a storm surge) stuff underground is going to get flooded. If you’re unwilling to put it above ground, you’re screwed.  Mr. Physics rules.

Wouldn’t  it be refreshing if some politician, any politician, would say “Maybe, just maybe, none of us have thought ahead sufficiently.”

Permit me to add a few words about United States energy policy.

What energy policy? The so-called American energy policy Is Balkanized, part-profit-driven, part-ideology-driven Chaos.  It is not science-driven or reality-driven.


  • New EPA regulations make construction of new coal-fired electrical generation facilities functionally impossible.

  • In the meantime, older coal plants are going off-line.

  • In the meantime, the demand for electricity is increasing. There are circumstances (for instance, if plug-in hybrid automobiles become popular) where electric demand can take a big leap upwards.

  • We swear that were going to become independent of foreign (and particularly Arab) oil. We’ve taken that oath for the last 40 years just as our imports from the Middle East have constituted a greater and greater share of our petroleum used.

  • We misrepresent petroleum reserves in the continental United States by ignoring the nature of the geology of the formations where the oil is located. Most of that so-called “abundant” oil will be very expensive to extract.

  • Wind power will never be a great portion of electrical production, but it can be some portion and certainly a greater portion that it  now is. The expense of producing electricity with wind has come down to the point that it nearly competes equally with coal. And yet now we’re hearing weird objections to wind power. After all, you have to put roads to the top of ridges and then scrape off a flat spot to put the turbine tower. Well, it would be nice if we could put them in the valleys, but it’s not windy there. There is also the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome at work. A wind power project has been planned in shallow water off Martha’s Vineyard. That’s a really windy place. But it’s also a rich person’s paradise, and you would think some of those folks had been gut shot. Not in my backyard. We want power, but put the machinery some place else.

  • Our efforts at conservation are miserable. Did you know that strip malls are making a comeback? That’s because shoppers are becoming walk less willing to walk around enclosed malls.  They want to drive from store to store.

  • Our efforts at recycling are pitiful. In lots of areas, particularly metals production, using virgin material is frightfully energy inefficient. Aluminum, for example, is an extremely common element. But it is damnably hard to extract and takes a great deal of energy to separate from ores. Reusing aluminum, on the other hand, uses very little energy.

We are all responsible for this energy mass. Gov. Cuomo pointing fingers is hypocritical bullshit.

OK, a lot of what we’re doing is hypocritical bullshit, too.  Cuomo is not the only bullshit artist in the colony.


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