Public Deserves Better from Power Industry

As engineers, we have an awesome responsibility. We work not just for our employers or our livelihood, but for the end user of our products – and a mistake can be costly, not only to ourselves and our employers, but to the trusting public who uses our products with a kind of blind faith that they will be safe and reliable.

As I sit in Virginia Beach in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, by some standards a relatively mild storm, I wonder if we, in the multitude of disciplines that come together in power engineering, have served our clients as well as we are capable of doing. I look at the damage and cannot help noticing that most people never lost water, sewerage, gas, or even phone service. But as I write this three days later, a million people were still without electrical power.

More sobering, I ponder the fact that most injuries and deaths attributable to this storm will be somehow related to the loss of power – carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly vented generators, fires and electrocutions from downed power lines, the auto accidents caused by nonfunctional traffic signals. I think about the huge economic loss this region will suffer, most of it resulting from lost business due to power outages.

And I cannot help thinking that in the twenty-first century, we could and should do better.

As I went on my daily bicycle workout through the various neighborhoods, with the clatter of portable generators running at a select few, I wondered why we have not made it a building code requirement that every home have a backup generator — a device that is neither new nor particularly complex nor particularly expensive, a device invented well over a century ago.

With the cost of the most modest dwelling at almost $100,000, and with the average home over twice that value, it seems that a piece of equipment costing less than a good living room sofa – and certain to drop in price with more widespread use – would not make a significant difference in the cost of a home. A generator consists of nothing more than a small engine coupled to an alternator and voltage regulator, and could be equipped with an interlocked bus transfer switch to prevent “backfeeding” — sending power back through the lines and endangering workers. Almost every home has a similar engine in the garage coupled to a lawnmower. Why not a generator?

Sure, everyone has the option of buying a generator. But that is where the problem comes in — such a device can be a hazard to those who do not know how to use it properly. This is a device whose installation should be done professionally and regulated by building codes.

Now consider the paradox that is our power generation industry. We have the most modern generating and switching equipment, but the most vulnerable part of the system is still based on century-old technology — and in many locations equipped with components nearly that old.

As I headed back to work, I heard the numbers from Dominion Virginia Power – over 2000 broken poles, 4000 broken crossarms, and thousands of damaged wires. The spokesman finished by commenting that this is not repair, it is reconstruction.

And this was only a Category 1 storm by the time it reached us. A storm of that magnitude should not cause damage of that magnitude to a modern system. We can build them stronger and we can do a better job of isolating them from damage by falling trees and other foreign objects.

I must wonder if we have put the same brainpower behind the durability of our transmission system that we have put into other areas of the industry.

It is not that the available technology is lacking. We have a variety of high-strength construction materials now available relatively inexpensively, as well as a myriad of extremely durable conducting materials. We routinely construct buildings and bridges that can withstand earthquakes and the highest winds a hurricane can generate. We have developed materials that can bend to extremes without breaking under all kinds of temperatures and can hold heavy aircraft miles above the earth against air speeds of hundreds of miles per hour.

I wonder why we have come to accept a system that is quite reliable under normal conditions, but is suddenly rendered unreliable in even the mildest electrical storm. Yes, many housing developments, including my own, have underground power cables, yet the lines that feed it are just as vulnerable as those everywhere else.

While we protect our nuclear plants with thick concrete walls and rebar that could stop a train, with one redundancy after another, the same redundancy and reliability is not built into our delivery system. Ironically, more people are injured and killed as a result of loss of power than in its generation. And before we kick and scream about the cost, perhaps we should think about the cost of just one major storm.

Indeed, we have become so used to power failures that it will take a crisis larger than those we have seen to recognize the urgency of improving the system.

And if the myriad storms we have every year do not communicate that urgency, perhaps the multiregional power loss earlier this year should have. If we threw our largest cities into chaos by human error or accident, consider what a determined terrorist group could do. While our plants have the best security we can muster, transmission lines, transformer substations, and switchyards remain fragile and relatively unprotected.

To be sure, there are a lot of positives to mention, the system is generally reliable, and I am sure that I will be deluged with responses crying “foul.” After all, it is true that we cannot engineer all systems against every possible natural disaster. And it is true that our system is better than in any country, and 7000 workers are restoring power at a record rate as I write this.

But the fact remains that after over a century of growing dependency on electricity, we have a distribution system that has changed little in that time, despite having the technology to vastly improve it.

The fact remains that we are capable of doing better.

Michael F. Cohen, M.E.A., P.E.
Virginia Beach, Va.

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