The Weak Link: The state of infrastructure

When the power grid fails

Scott Tong Jun 18, 2015
The Weak Link: The state of infrastructure

When the power grid fails

Scott Tong Jun 18, 2015

The nation’s system of power plants, utility poles and electrical wires is aging. And compared with other developed countries, it’s less and less reliable. Among the worst hit states: Connecticut.

Three historic storms hit the state in 2011 and 2012. Each time, more than 600,000 residents lost power for days. More than lights went out: household water comes from wells in the town of Marlborough.

“The well runs off electricity,” resident Cliff Denniss says. “And when you lose power you don’t have the pump working to push the water into the house. And you only get about two flushes out of the toilet. ..and when you’re out for a week it can get pretty tough.”

Marlborough went dark for a week in all three storms. Cliff Denniss’s wife, Dorothy, now fills the tub with water when a big one’s coming. Which she admits is not enough for a week-long outage.

“You don’t flush every time,” she says. “Trust me.”

Gas stations in town lost power to pump their gas. Cellphone batteries died. And perishable food … perished. Unless you ate it.

“I had filet mignon all week,” Dorothy Denniss says. “I just bought a brand new one, had it chopped up into steaks. It was in the freezer, we lost the power. I said ‘we have to eat this!’” 

In the average year, New England loses power for a total of three and a half hours, compared with four minutes in Japan. The U.S. fares worse than any other rich country. The cost – in lost work and production – is estimated at $80 billion, more than Google makes in a year. 

The big culprit is weather — say, winds knocking tree limbs into power lines strung along streets. So in Marlborough, backup generators sell rather well.

“We’re still consuming electricity in ways we have done over 100 years in this country,” remodeling contractor Scott Welch says. “I think what we’re doing is antiquated.”

In fact, one joke told frequently in the business: if Thomas Edison came back today, he would recognize the power grid he helped create.

In 1882, Edison built the first electric “utility” system.

Edison’s Pearl Street Station.

“He invented a light bulb,” Virginia Tech energy historian Richard Hirsh says. “He also invented specialized generators to produce electricity. He developed the wiring system.”

Edison’s very first utility went up in Manhattan. Like a local drugstore, it was a local electric company, with generators and customers in the same place. But this local model lost out. Two of Edison’s rivals, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, developed long-distance transmission, to send power from big sources far away.

“Westinghouse transmitted power from a Niagara Falls hydropower plant to the city of Buffalo about 20 miles distant,” Hirsh says.

Long-distance electricity was more efficient and cheaper. So America ended up with a hub-and–spoke system of poles and wires.

And electricity changed everything.

“It allows you to heat, to cool, to illuminate,” Hirsch says. “In factories, it boosted productivity hugely. In homes, it enables people to do things at day and night in ways that people in the 19th century could only imagine.”

We became addicted to electricity.

But then, the grid aged, and investment didn’t keep up. Power failures have tripled since the 1980s.


Major Electric Grid Outages From Severe Weather, 2000 to 2014

Courtesy: Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy

“An experienced electrical engineer, a field operator, once said to me, ‘the whole system is going to fall down some day, it’s just not going to happen on the same day,’”  says Larry Reilly, a former utility executive now with Rosewood Consulting. “That was really the philosophy of operating companies for a long time, to wait ’til failure.”

The electricity infrastructure, Reilly says, went up in a big hurry early on. “People were looking for the fastest, cheapest places to put facilities,” he said. “If we went back and had the ability to do it again, the system would have been designed a little bit differently, but of course, we don’t have that opportunity.”

A case in point: a 1920s substation in the Connecticut town of Branford, on Long Island Sound. It was built right at sea level. So it floods and fails with storm surges.

A substation in Branford.

“I don’t know what was in the minds of folks as to why it went here,” local resident and journalist Marcia Chambers says. “The flooding of the street has long been an issue.” In two of the big storms –Irene and Sandy – one of Branford’s main Internet providers, Comcast, lost its power. Gone was the whole Comcast bundle: internet, TV, phone.

“The idea that companies are bundling everything and giving you a discount sounds really terrific,” Chambers says. “Except when it goes down.” 

Local cell towers also lost power. The town hospice saw its backup generator fail, so it had to move dying people. Electric wheelchairs could not recharge.

Why did so much of the grid go down?

“We found in Connecticut that half the utility poles were more than 50 years old, did not meet modern standards, and when faced with heavy wind began to snap,” Yale law professor Dan Esty says. He was state energy commissioner for all three storms. “A significant percent of the wires were not insulated, meaning that not only if they were knocked down there was a problem, but if a tree branch touched them they would arc and short out.”

Esty blames state rules aimed at keeping customer rates low, which may have discouraged utilities from investing in reliability.

“We have an antiquated regulatory model that provided limited capital,” Esty says, “and resulted, I think, in systematic underinvestment in grid modernization.”

By the third storm, state lawmakers said enough. They started to consider big changes to the power grid. Esty’s wife had enough, too, by Superstorm Sandy.

“I came home after the first night in the bunker with the governor,” Esty says. “And on the second night, did grill on my outside grill and served my wife dinner by candlelight, and I think it was quite charming. On the third day she was grumbling a bit. And on the fourth day she asked me, ‘Who the hell is the commissioner of energy in the state of Connecticut?’”

At that point, Connecticut passed a law to finance more decentralized, or distributed energy. What’s that like? Take a look at Denmark’s system:

Distributed Generation in Denmark

 Marketplace is teaming up with Waze to look at transportation infrastructure across the U.S. Click here to find out how you can be a part of our series and report bad infrastructure on your own commute. 

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