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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Power Out(r)age

Posted By on Thu, Feb 12, 2009 at 10:57 AM

I'm one of the tens of thousands of people who lost power in last night's windstorms. I woke up this morning with no electricity, no hot water, and a house whose temperature had fallen to the low 50s overnight. 

By now, my wife and I have gotten used to this: We lose power several times each year, usually for a couple hours at a time. Once it happened during a Penguins playoff game last year -- you could actually hear the screams of anguish echoing up and down the street. 

The first half-dozen times it happened, it was fun in a sleepover sort of way. I do some hiking, so we have candle lanterns and a backpacking stove. We make coffee, have breakfast, whatever.

But some of the novelty has started to wear off. 

I'm not going to complain about the maintenance crews. The guys work hard, and anyway, I'm not suffering too badly. I've been in the office since about 7:30 this morning (the office is heated, see. Thanks, benevolent corporate masters!) So for all I know, the power has been restored already. 

No, my problem is with the fact that the power lines are prone to windstorms in the first place. The problem, as I see it, is that they are suspended way up high in the air. Which, in case you haven't noticed, is where the wind frequently blows.

I have a brother who lives in a suburban cul-de-sac, and who doesn't have to worry about this shit. The homes out there are new, and the power lines are buried. I also have friends who live in Europe. Their power lines are buried too, even though they live in cities much older than ours. 

Apparently, the theory is that there is less wind underground. So if you put your utility lines there, they aren't as vulnerable to the weather.  A novel concept, but it seems to work OK. 

Yet, here in much of America, to live in a city neighborhood or an older suburb means dealing with these outages a couple times a year (if you're lucky) or more often (if you live on my street). 

Personally, I'm not much more than inconvenienced by this stuff. But it's ... embarrassing. It's embarrassing to live in what we're constantly told is the richest, most advanced and powerful country in the world, and then to wake up living in a 21st century shtetl. From what my friends tell me, even the Belgians don't put up with this nonsense. 

That's right: the Belgians. 

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman occasionally writes pieces about how the US is falling behind other countries because, like, the first-class lounge in Shanghai's airport has better upholstery than the first-class lounge in La Guardia. Those are the kind of problems I'd like to have. I wonder how Tom would take it if he couldn't get his electric toothbrush to recharge overnight. 

I mean, come on. There have been storms for a long time. Surely I'm not the only one who has noticed the effect that has on electricity service. In fact, I've heard a few people suggest that, if Barack Obama wants to invest in infrastructure and kick-start the economy, burying America's power lines would be a good place to start.

Obama's stimulus bill is, in fact, being negotiated in Congress right now. Maybe somebody could slip in a rider requiring spending for this rather than, like, new road spending or a lot of other shiny infrastructure stuff. There's cause to hope: The stimulus bill may well include more than $6 billion in grants to furnish Americans -- especially those in rural areas -- with high-speed internet access.

I can't say this would be my top priority, to be honest. (I suspect Verizon's lobbyists on K Street must have their own back-up generators, since nothing seems to slow those guys down.) But hey, installing high-speed internet creates jobs too, and America's farmers should be able to download porn at broadband speeds. Those guys work hard and get up early -- they don't have time to view Xtube clips on dial-up. 

But here's the question they should be asking in Washington: How are America's farmers going to watch their hard-won pornography when the power goes out? Let's get our priorities straight, people.

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