Monday, February 8, 2010

Let's Finally Get Rid of Those Utility Poles

After looking at this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo taken after the major snowstorm that hit here in Pittsburgh and later Washington D.C., I had an Andy Rooney moment. In my best Andy Rooney voice, I thought out loud, “Did you ever wonder why we still put up with all of those ugly utility poles and wires all over the place?”

As it turns out, back in 2005 the real Andy Rooney did a 60 Minutes essay on this subject titled
America Should Go Wireless.

How in the world did we ever allow the power companies and the telephone companies to disfigure our landscape with their tangle of wires displayed on 50-foot tall poles?

They dominate our skyline. If there are good, natural, full-grown trees in the path of the pole-borne wires, power companies regularly disfigure the trees by cutting holes in the foliage. They chop off limbs to let their wires through.

Eliminating the eyesore of utility poles by running lines underground would certainly make our neighborhoods more attractive looking and not coincidentally, increase property values. But converting to underground lines is expensive and tough to justify strictly on the grounds of aesthetics.

But when we consider the hundreds of thousands who lost their power in the Mid-Atlantic states along with Washington D.C. area, it is fitting to ask if we can do something to reduce the number of power outages in the future. And make no mistake, this is far more that an inconvenience to these people when they lose their heat in frigid temperatures. (Gas furnaces also need electricity to run the controls and the air blowers.) Not only is this dangerous to especially the elderly, but many people get sick or even die from carbon monoxide poisoning trying to use alternative means to keep warm.

Many if not most of these power outages were due to the use of overhead lines — or more precisely, trees falling onto the power lines. (Post-Gazette photo)

In the summertime, it is lightning strikes and high winds that wreak havoc on overhead lines.

And when vehicles crash into utility poles, severe injury or death is the usual result.

Most new construction in the last 30 years or so in cities and suburbs has been built with
underground wiring instead of utility poles. And this means that for street lighting, lightweight aluminum poles are used that snap off on impact, thus saving lives and preventing serious injury.

But converting existing areas to underground wiring can be expensive and disruptive. Which is why it is said to be impractical. But repairing massive outages like the one this weekend in a timely manner
is also expensive. For example, with all of Allegheny Power’s line crews out doing repairs…

Allegheny Power also has also contracted with up to 1,000 outside contractors and brought in hundreds of trained crews from other utilities not hit by the storm in western Ohio and southern New York.

With a state of emergency declared by the areas affected, much of the tab will be picked up by the state governments or more likely the federal government. So why not use some of the federal stimulus money intended for rebuilding our infrastructure on converting some of our overhead lines to underground ones? Admittedly, it is not practical to do it everywhere, but it is reasonable to expect that our utilities keep data on which areas have been the most trouble prone — most likely it's where trees and overhead lines are in close proximity to one another. Can’t we at least prioritize these areas first to give our spending the most bang for the buck?

Getting rid of utility poles is not a cure-all. Some parts of the power distribution system still have to be above ground so there will still be some outages due to weather — but not nearly as many. Which means not nearly as much hardship like that experienced by hundreds of thousands this weekend who lost their power.

We are good at putting our money and efforts into emergencies and disasters during and after they occur. But spending money on trying to help prevent them isn’t worth it to many of us. When will we ever learn?


Jody and Alex said...

What can I do to influence this change where I live? Penn Hills would be so much safer and prettier without them...

Tony Polombo said...

Unfortunately, this is an issue that few in the media have commented on. So it was a pleasant surprise when the Post-Gazette’s Dan Simpson wrote about this in an op-ed piece dated 8/11/10 titled America's Trivial Pursuits.

Another infrastructure question that troubles me is that every time we have a storm, trees fall and take down wires. If we made the investment necessary to put the wires underground we wouldn't have the regular problem of thunder, snow or ice storms cutting them, making families go without electricity sometimes for days before expensive repairs take place. That, too, wouldn't cost anything by comparison to the price of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and some Washington types are itching to get us into a new pointless war with Iran.

Especially since Mr. Simpson is a part of the P-G Editorial Board, I wrote an E-mail thanking him for his remarks and made the following request of him:

In the future when we get another snow or ice storm that leaves thousands without power – and it will come – I hope you will please convey to the Editorial Board the need to address this issue with your readers.

And I suggest to you and others that when all of the power outages are front and center in the news that you do the same in the way of writing to the media.

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