Forgive me if I’ve told this one before, but I like it:
Two jungle explorers walk into a clearing, only to confront an enormous tiger entering from the other side. One explorer drops his backpack and begins putting on running shoes. The second explorer says, “Friend, you’ll never outrun that tiger.” The first explorer says, “I don’t need to outrun the tiger. I need to outrun you.”
Two weeks ago, residents of central Virginia outran New Jersey and New York.
We got lucky – this time.
It’s not hard to imagine what things would have been like if SuperStorm Sandy had turned left eighty miles sooner. Most of us remember Hurricane Isabel. We’re all familiar with winter ice storms.
Picture a combination of the two – flooding and wind damage here, a blizzard in the Shenandoah Valley – nearly the whole Commonwealth suffering a devastating economic and humanitarian impact lasting many weeks.
FEMA would have responded, of course. And the National Guard. FEMA is more efficiently run than it was under George W. Bush, but years of miserly budgets have left it far from what it needs to be. And two foreign wars have had their impact on the Guard.
Add to that state and local budgets slashed during the recent recession, and we can all be thankful that Sandy went north.
There’s a good argument to be made here for beefing up our capacity, at all levels of government, to respond to a major natural disaster.
Looking down the road, there’s also a powerful case for re-evaluating Federal, state and local energy policies which were developed back when it was still possible for intelligent people to argue that global climate change wasn’t happening.
But right now, I’d like to focus on something we can start dealing with immediately – the reliability of electric power.
In Virginia, most electric power is provided by private, for-profit corporate monopolies. Nominally, these monopolies are regulated by the Commonwealth of Virginia. In reality, the shoe has traditionally been on the other foot. As Senator Henry Howell pointed out four decades ago, in Virginia, the power companies – along with developers, road-builders, and a few other big interests – pretty much run politics.
Maybe that was fine once, when a prosperous tide raised all boats and nature seemed a benign force. Today, we face a new reality. We’ve been messing with Mother Nature, and she’s not happy. Our society has become aware of its vulnerability to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos, ice-storms, and whatever else Mom might decide to hurl at us in future.
Unless we want to go back to the nineteenth century, we need to assure ourselves of something we no longer have – reliable electric power.
Now, please, I’m saying nothing against the stalwart guys (and gals) who work overtime in lousy weather to restore service once it’s gone down. There’s something approaching the heroic in their dedication and persistence under adverse conditions.
But there aren’t enough of them, and – more to the point – there are far too many miles of vulnerable infrastructure which the power companies refuse to “harden”.
For the power companies, it’s all about the bottom line. And that’s not good enough.
I’m no expert, but it seems to me that there are several common-sense things Virginia could do to reduce the inevitable impact of future natural disasters on our power-dependent culture.
First, the Commonwealth should provide incentives for rural residents – the first to lose power and the last to get it back – to acquire their own generating capacity. Subsidized loans for rural homes built or modified to survive off-the-grid would be a good place to start. Power companies maintain thousands of miles of power lines to serve a relative handful of customers. With the right incentives, modern, energy-saving technology – combined with solar, wind or geothermal systems – could take these homes off the grid.
Second, we should provide carrot-and-stick incentives for power companies to start burying power lines in strategically-selected areas. Underground power lines are far less susceptible to disruption than an overhead system. Converting all at once would cost a fortune, but a gradual program, paid for with a modest increase in everyone’s electric bill, would begin to reduce our vulnerability and shorten the time needed to restore service.
And in hard times, bumping up the pace of conversion would provide needed jobs for displaced workers.
Finally, the Commonwealth should create “stick” type incentives for power companies to find ways of responding more quickly to major outages. Perhaps a regulation to compensate subscribers at the rate of one month of free service for every day of lost service after the first week would do the trick.
The world is changing, and we have changed it. Over the long term, this will require us to learn new and different ways of living. For the moment, we should at least assure ourselves of reliable electric power.