Florida Pilot

A compendium of random thoughts from a former Washington Beltway insider who is now having a lot more fun flying small airplanes in Central Florida.

Monday, October 24, 2005

6 million without power in Florida; will anything different be done in the future?

According to reports, Hurricane Wilma knocked out power to 6 millions Florida residents and it will take weeks before power is restored.

If there is one thing that has been consistent about the hurriicanes striking the United States over the past few years, it has been the devestating effect on electric power infrastructure. While the extent of injuries and even loss of life has been relatively low in even the more severe of storms in recent years, damage to electric power infrastructure has been widespread and has taken a long time to repair.

After being repaired and replaced, the power infrastructure is left no less vulnerable for the next storm. And the utilities are always there to take advantage of the situation to raise rates. In fact, while building codes have been strengthened over the years, typically requiring new or rebuilt structures to be made less vulnerable to storms than older structures, fragile electric power lines and poles are replaced again and again with a certainty that they will fail at the next opportunity.

Perhaps the view is that the larger investment costs associated with running power lines underground is not justified by the frequency of storms that can disable the fragile above-ground infrastructure. The number and strength of storms over the past few years suggests that is not a convincing argument. Scientists tell us that we are about 10 years into a 20 to 40 year cycle of increased hurricane activity. Over this period of time, it is likely that much of the vulnerable power infrastructure will be rebuilt multiple times under emergency conditions with associated high costs.

One might think that a smart and visionary political leader would gain something by advocating hardening of the power infrastructure but no one has made such a proposal. Certainly the technology to run power lines underground exists and is proven. In addition to being inherently fragile, overhead power lines are an eyesore. A 20-30 year project to replace vulnerable overhead lines with storm-resistant underground service would certainly cost a lot of money but perhaps less in the long run by piecemeal rebuilding of facilities that have been shown from experience to be extremely fragile. And that doesn't include the costs to the economy when power supplies are disrupted for long periods of time.


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