By Howard Arden
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Based on that description the way our utility companies distribute our electric power is insane. Each recent major storm causes billions of dollars in damage, requiring millions of dollars and countless labor-hours to rebuild the same above-ground, obsolete 20th century electrical system. There are locations in North Castle where poles and transformers have been completely replaced three times in the last 13 months.
The first lesson of Sandy is that our climate is changing. Whether this change is caused by humans, or by a natural climate alteration, is immaterial. The facts are that sea levels are rising, temperatures are warmer and storms are more frequent and severe.
Sandy was a category one hurricane, yet it left 40,000 NYC residents homeless and 8.5 million people in 10 states without power. Ninety-eight percent (98%) of North Castle residents were without power, some for almost two weeks, including me. And let us not forget that, apart from lost power, falling telephone poles cause personal injury and property damage.
Most climate experts agree that as bad as Sandy was, we can expect worse. They predict that a Katrina-like storm will hit us at some point. If this were to occur, based on our Sandy experience, we would be without power for a month.
No amount of assistance from out-of-state electrical crews from the south or west could rebuild our entire above ground electrical system any sooner. Replacement equipment would also be impossible to obtain.
For example, during Sandy, we lost 30 telephone poles just on Nannahagen Road. These lines supply power to a significant portion of North Castle. In a bigger storm, it would be physically impossible to inventory enough equipment to recover from a major regional disaster.
Fortunately, there is a solution. We don’t have to stockpile impossible amounts of inventory and expend billions of labor dollars to repair an antiquated power supply system. This is the second lesson of Sandy. We need a new and different distribution system for our electricity. Utilities need to start burying our wires. Other than clear-cutting all of our trees, there is no practical alternative. Yes, it will be expensive and it will not happen over night, but a strategic decision must be made to start the process. Once the utilities agree that their customers deserve better service, and thus that wires must be buried, we can get on with the process of figuring out how we will do it and the most economical way to finance it. This week, the head of LIPA, the worst performing utility during Sandy, stated that they may need to start burying some of their wires. Had just main distribution lines been under ground, Sandy’s effects would have been much less severe.
The lessons of the last 13 months are clear. Utilities can no longer defend themselves with arguments of the prohibitive cost of burying electrical lines. That cost pales in comparison to the cost of human suffering caused by their unwillingness to modernize and their lack of proper planning. We need to invest in our infrastructure! A number of neighborhoods in our town already have buried cables…so it can be accomplished. It is only the will that is missing. I intend to press this issue with the politicians, boards, and commissions responsible for making the needed changes in our electrical system. Sandy is a powerful wake-up call that we need a new direction. I hope you agree with the lessons we have learned from Sandy and will support these efforts. Our well being and quality of life depend upon it.
Howard Arden is Supervisor of the Town of North Castle.
Photo by Jen Geller