(I know I keep harping on this. It’s partly personal. I’ve been suffering through Pepco blackouts in Bethesda since I was in high school in the early 1970s. This time, we lost power for three days.)
Let’s save time at the start by discarding the idea of burying all the overhead power lines. It’s the first thing everybody proposes, and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) dredged up the idea again after the June 29 derecho storm
It’s not going to happen. It’s way too expensive, even for someone like me who usually favors big investments in public infrastructure.
Sure, we should put a few, selected power lines underground. It would be worth it for those that are particularly vulnerable to windblown trees or that serve an especially large number of people.
But the price tag to bury them all runs in the billions of dollars — nearly $6 billion for the District alone. Customers would bear the cost. That won’t fly in an era when the region’s legislators wring their hands over raising taxes by a fraction of that amount.
Instead, regulators should use fines, incentives and other pressures to ensure that utilities raise their effectiveness through less-expensive measures. Based on this recent experience, the following mix would make a difference:
●Get more help. This was the derecho’s No. 1 lesson. The biggest problem was the delay in bringing in repair crews from other states and Canada to pitch in.
The utilities argue, with some justification, that they couldn’t arrange for help earlier because forecasters didn’t give them advance warning, as typically happens before a hurricane or snowstorm.
But even after the urgent calls went out last Friday evening, there were plenty of complaints that the utilities hadn’t put enough boots on the ground.
One came from Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), who was unhappy that his constituents in less-populated areas were a low priority on Dominion’s service-restoration list.
“A way to solve that problem is to bring in more resources. It’s especially important when it’s 95 degrees out and a large number of people are on [electric] wells and don’t have water, as well,” Foust said.
Several area leaders said utilities ought to have a larger number of repair workers on call locally, especially given that climate change means violent storms will probably become more frequent.
“We can’t rely on exchange agreements with other utilities. They need a big reserve of local technical people,” said Maryland Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s).