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Second world infrastructure

"Millions without power": That's you read after a typhoon in Asia, or something. Not in the greatest country in the world. Eh?

So let it not be said that there's no infrastructure to invest in. And I know plenty of highly skilled technical people down south who routinely deal with power failures even when there is no tropical storm. It's like Baghdad, where everybody owns a power generator because the grid is for shit. I mean the grid is a Galtian paradise. Yeah, that's what I mean.

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Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

We've had large power failures since the 1960s, at least. For my part, I'm used to reading about them happening in America.

As for people generating their own power, I'd love to see the day when most of us could at least have a small solar collector on our roofs, keeping the lights and the computer on.

Add the electric grid to the "to do" list, though, because it definitely could stand improvement. If it were better constructed, it would not only do a better job of recovering from disasters, but it would also save energy. I generally lump that project in with "green power", but it's really energy conservation and making our society better at dealing with disaster.

Submitted by Lex on

Overhead lines can only take so much wind and generally not any fallen trees.

The real solution to this kind of problem is buried transmission cables, but i have a feeling that a lot of us would balk at the amount eminent domain required for burying the nation's cable network...even if it would be for the best.

On the other hand, i agree with you. For a long time the power at my parents' house would go out for long periods of time and for seemingly no good reason. While here, under a publicly owned and operated grid, i can only think of two times in the last seven years at multiple locations that the power has gone out for more than a minute or two. In both of the longer outages, it was no more than a couple of hours. One was a switchyard transformer that blew and the other was a pole transformer. Further, the board of light & power will come out promptly and prune trees for free if there's overhang.

(We also don't have hurricanes or tornadoes, fwiw.)

Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

There are pluses and minuses to buried lines. Buried lines are more likely to be flooded or damaged by animals. While they're great in some locations, when you have to extend them from a hundred miles or more, not unheard of out here in the West, then burying transmission lines is likely to be very expensive.

Our public transmission lines have been downed by wind on occasion, and the privately regulated utilities have actually been pretty good about performing maintenance. The important thing, I think, is that there's some form of public pressure that the power providers feel obligated to respond to. Regulations that are enforced work pretty well. Regulation-free environments, not so much.


Submitted by jawbone on

about the hurricane damage, some or all of the power companies, to lower the number of employees with benefits, unions, etc., got rid of their in house vegetation management crews. They then hire private tree trimming companies on an "as needed" basis.

"As needed" has changed as they no longer have crews devoted to inspecting the power lines for possible vegetation problems; they depend on people calling in problems and actualy outages to alert them to problem areas.

Things grow, saplings become trees, etc. Less is being done to keep the lines free of potentially harmful growth around them.

This info came from the reporter at WNYC dedicated to NJ news.

I do recall my neighbors calling in problem tree growth and not getting any action for about 3 years.

Submitted by Lex on

aka Marquette, Michigan

Some years ago our publicly owned power company got a purchase offer, but it had to be voted on by the city. Thankfully, the residents were smart enough. We retained our Board of Light & Power; we elect the board members. Though it's a coal plant, it doesn't purchase from mountain top removal mines (would cause a stink here). And because it's not-for-profit, we pay rates of $0.07/kwh. I don't begrudge the board members' low, six-figure salaries and certainly not union rates for employees. How could i given how inexpensive my power is after paying that?

Some of our low rates probably stem from the coal being delivered by boats that are on their way to pick up ore elsewhere on the lake.

Everyone i've known who called for vegetation services has gotten service within a week, but i think that's probably related to being publicly owned. Pissed off customers have a recourse. It's also a small city of just 21,000 so it's not hard to provide some of these services.

Submitted by jawbone on

and cool as in neat. Must be beautiful.

When I lived in Milwaukee, friends and I used to drive up to Indianhead for a weekend of skiing. Leave right after work, grab a motel, hit the hill as soon as possible. Cold, but dry, so not bad when active. I was young and we'd driven so far I tried to ski every possible minute. Hence that last run down the headwall (Let's go for it!), losing control and my edge, and breaking my ski.... Good times. At the time, I actually said I wished I'd broken my leg as that could be fixed and regrow, and I couldn't fix my lovely, loved ski. Ah, youth. Ah, cheaper medical insurance and costs!

I haven't been to Marquette since I was a child, when the family made a trip around Lake Michigan for our summer vacation. With an American Motors Nash which made into a bed (however uncomfortable!).

lizpolaris's picture
Submitted by lizpolaris on

I can count on one hand the number of times the power went out as I was growing up until I left MN in 1996. Since I've lived in the Northeast and now in the South, losing power is more like a once a month event.

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

Professional gloom and doomer James Howard Kunstler writes:

...[T]he disaster is still very much ongoing Monday, even with the sun shining bright. Towns all over Vermont and New Hampshire are still drowning. The Hudson River is still on the rise. The Mohawk River is at a 500-year flood stage and is about to wipe the old city center of Schenectady, New York, off the map. [Kunstler lives in nearby Saratoga Springs.] Bridges, dams, and roads are gone over a region at least as big as the Gulf Coast splatter-trail of Katrina.

...A lot of people will not be able to get around for a long, long time, especially in Vermont and New Hampshire, where the rugged terrain only allows for a few major roads that go anywhere.... If you live in a flat state, you may have no idea.

The next story is going to be the realization that there's no money to put it all back together the way it was. The states don't have the money. The federal government is obviously broke, and an awful lot of the individual households and businesses will turn out to not have any insurance coverage for this kind of disaster where it was water, not wind, that destroyed the property.

This is a warning to America that the converging catastrophes of climate change, energy scarcities, and failures of capital formation add up to more than the sum of their parts in their power to drive a complex society into a ditch - no matter what a moron like Rick Perry might say. But, of course, political ramifications will follow. There will be a lot of pissed-off people in the Northeast USA. Maybe they'll even start giving the grievance-bloated folk of Dixieland some competition in the politics of the bitter harvest.

Oddly, the Siamese twin states of Vermont and New Hampshire are political polar opposites. Vermont, the land of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and other squooshy culture tropes from the attic of Hippiedom, is about as Left-progressive as it gets. New Hampshire's license plate says, "Live Free or Die," and that same draconian mood defines the state's politics: hard Right. It's like a few counties of Georgia shook loose and drifted north somehow.

My guess is that the political rage will be about equal on both fronts, as folks are left stranded, or homeless, or without a going business they thought they had only a day or so ago. And my further guess is that their mood will afford some insight into the extreme impotence, incompetence, and mendacity of both major political parties....

Apart from the fact that the hurricane season is just gearing up, and that a procession of tropical storm blobs has commenced to pour out of West Africa, there is that other alternate universe of storms, brushfires, and fiascos called the fnancial system, which everybody sort of forgot about over the weekend. Well, it's ba-a-a-ck this morning, too, and the financial weather was deteriorating sharply last time I looked. You can stick a fork in the Euro Zone. Bank of America is panhandling for spare change like a dying wino as it whirls around the drain. Nobody knows what the shadow bets on all this action is, but you can bet on one thing for sure: the counterparties can't pay....

Submitted by jm on

Two October 2009 e-mails written by PG&E corrosion engineers who analyzed the defective welding and cracks on the pipe's longitudinal seam provide the strongest evidence yet that company officials knew in advance about the risk to the 30-inch line that exploded Sept. 9 in San Bruno, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.


One of the PG&E e-mails concerning the pipeline known as Line 132 was written Oct. 18, 2009, by a company engineer whose name was redacted from the state filing. He recounted a visit two days earlier to a site where an inspection crew was checking for corrosion on Line 132. He said he had learned that before he got there, crews had identified as many as 20 suspected cracks on an angled bend in a short piece of pipe.

Such cracks indicated the presence of a flawed weld on a "problem elbow," the engineer wrote. He said the inspection crew had ground down portions of the weld by mistake before he arrived and that only one crack remained when he inspected it.

Another PG&E engineer followed up with an e-mail 10 days later reviewing the cracking and pointing out an incomplete seam weld on a longer piece of pipe also at the location, which he identified as near Interstate 280 at a spot about 2 miles north of where the pipeline later exploded.

PG&E, of course, is not to blame:

Kirk Johnson, vice president of gas operations for PG&E, said Friday that the engineers had determined that the line was not at risk of failure.

Johnson said federal law requires companies to inspect for bad welds all along a pipeline only if one leaks or fails, and that the welds discovered in 2009 were still holding. He said many of the cracks were not deep and the engineers had not seen any sign they were getting worse.

An independent pipeline industry consultant offers another perspective:

Kuprewicz disagreed that PG&E hadn't violated federal law by not ordering high-pressure water tests on Line 132 after finding the defective welds.

"I'm sorry, they were in violation of integrity management regulations," Kuprewicz said. "That's not a defense, but I wish them luck. You don't have to have a leak or a failure to act. You just can't ignore this."

But, but, but, there was a leak on this same line (albeit 20 years ago) nine miles from the blast site along a weld similar to the one which failed causing the San Bruno explosion. Given this information, the utility should have known that this gas main was constructed of questionable material and thus should have monitored potential corrosion issues more closely. So why couldn't PG&E risk assessors put two and two together? Apparently, because doing so would have cost a lot of money:

The company could have tested the pipeline using high-pressure water, an effective technique for finding bad seam welds. But PG&E long avoided such inspections, saying they were costly and necessitated shutting down pipelines.

This type of testing runs an estimated $125,000 to $500,000 per mile.

Risk managers instead literally buried the issue when the inspection hole was refilled and no further action taken:

The same month the defective welds were found, a senior consultant gas engineer for PG&E and other engineers prepared a separate, long-term plan identifying possible safety risks on a 10-mile section of the line and other branches, including where the cracks were found and the spot where the pipe later exploded.

The company discounted the possibility that there could be bad seam welds and made no mention of the cracks or defective welds that the inspection crew had found, instead relying on 5-year-old corrosion inspection data to rule out risks. However, [even though] the section covered in the report included a spot on the line in San Mateo that leaked at a faulty longitudinal seam weld in 1988.

PG&E's negligence here begs the question: Why did they take the risk? I believe the answer lies in an as of yet under-reported angle to this story. In 1997, PG&E formed a parent company called PG&E Corp. and staffed it with investment bankers and energy traders. It's primary purpose was, and still is, to leverage revenue from the utility--which, with it's state-sanctioned monopoly, is a cash cow--in various financial markets and profit from the many bets placed therein. Cutting corners on maintenance and safety left a lot more money available to take to the casino. (No wonder it took these Einsteins only five years to land the utility in Federal Bankruptcy Court, but that's a different story for another day.)

The San Bruno tragedy is an example of what happens when rent extraction is taken to its extreme: Death by financialization.