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Sandy brings yet another blackout to US power grid


Superstorm Sandy has plunged millions of US homes and businesses into darkness – as Hurricane Irene did last year. Will the latest disaster provide the impetus to overhaul the country’s aging power grid?


As “Frankenstorm” Sandy wreaked havoc on the US late Monday into early Tuesday, the microblogging site Twitter went abuzz with thousands of plaintive tweets about the faltering or failing power supply across swathes of the US Northeast.

“Well hurricane sandy [sic] you are providing time to catch up on tv [sic] shows, please don't take it away by taking the electricity!” tweeted one Pennsylvania resident shortly before dawn Tuesday. To which, another East Coaster replied: “Hurricane Sandy, you may have taken my Internet, TV, and electricity....but you will never take my pants.”

Thousands of miles away, in power outage-plagued Pakistan, at least one local was not impressed by the blackouts gripping the US. “5.3 million without power in the USA & 180 million people living without electricity or regular loadshedding on a daily basis in #Pakistan,” scoffed a Twitter user.

By Tuesday afternoon, the number of US homes and businesses without power had risen to 8.1 million, according to the Department of Energy - a figure fast approaching the 8.4 million outage peak during last year’s Hurricane Irene.

In pictures: 'SUPER STORM' Sandy batters US East Coast
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As Americans struggled to keep up with the extent of the calamity, civil engineers and energy experts were once again confronting a problem they had long warned about.

“It’s a perfect storm for us,” said Otto J. Lynch, vice president of the Wisconsin-based Power Line Systems, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “We have old infrastructure and we’re pushing our systems harder than anywhere else in the world. At the same time, we’re changing our power sources and we need new transmission systems.”

Hospital patients carried down stairwells

For the millions across the globe who go about their daily lives without regular power supply, America’s shocked response to the Sandy-induced blackouts might have seemed overwrought.

But New York City, like the rest of the US Northeast, is not jerry-rigged to a system of backup, backyard generators and US residents are not equipped or familiar with the accommodations required of an untold number of the world’s citizens who do not have the luxury of a dependable power supply.

By all accounts, monster storm Sandy was a natural disaster on an unprecedented scale, the result of a cataclysmic confluence of climate systems.

Still, the world is not accustomed to scenes of hospital patients in New York City being carried down stairwells – since elevators were not working – out into the stormy weather, trailed by nurses holding IV drips aloft.

That’s precisely what happened late Monday at New York University’s Tisch Hospital, where more than 200 patients had to be evacuated – some of them on respirators operating on battery power – after the hospital’s backup generator failed.

Power is not the problem, it’s the distribution

While most countries plagued by frequent outages – such as Pakistan and India – have a shortage of power, that’s not the case with the US. The problem, as Lynch explains, is an ageing power grid, which is stretched to capacity.

“Most of our extra high voltage transmission lines were built in the 1950s and the ‘60s,” explained Lynch. “Many of our structures are rusting and corroded and though the utility services are doing a pretty good job of replacing them, the problem is just that these lines have been up and running for 50 to 70 years.”

In a report published earlier this year, the Virginia-based American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) warned that the US in on its way to having an inadequate electrical system.

“The ageing of equipment explains some of the equipment failures that lead to intermittent failures in power quality and availability,” said the report. “The capacity of equipment explains why there are some bottlenecks in the grid that can also lead to brownouts and occasional blackouts.”

It happened one hot afternoon in 2003 - and again, and again

That’s exactly what happened on an especially hot August afternoon in 2003, when households and businesses across the Northeast had cranked up their air conditioners.

An overheated power line in northern Ohio expanded, sagged, came in contact with trees and caused a local short circuit. Within two hours, power lines across Ohio downed as the regional grid kept sending power through the weakened area. A few hours later, the entire US Northeast – as well as parts of Canada – was plunged into darkness.

Four months ago, a summer storm – called “derecho” – swept across six US Midwestern states, with winds gusting up to 80 miles per hour, causing 22 deaths and power failures.

The wind gusts were just as strong on Monday night, but experts note that the US national code for distribution lines – the networks transmitting power from substations down to users – is designed to withstand winds of up to 60 miles per hour.

“That was just a few months ago,” explained Lynch. “We didn’t change anything since."

‘Storm after storm after storm, nothing changes’

The reasons for the failure to act are myriad and can depend on who is asked.

In its 2012 report, the ASCE noted that an additional $107 billion was needed to be invested in electrical generation, distribution and transmission by 2020.

Lynch however notes that finances are not the problem. “We have the money, we have the know-how – that’s the frustrating part,” he explained.

The problem, according to Lynch and several energy and civil engineering experts, is the complex process of permissions across states, planning, constructing and meeting interstate and inter-regional regulations.

Little wonder then that Lynch is not optimistic that Sandy’s devastating wake is likely to change anything. “We’ve had many Sandys,” he explained. “In the 30 years I’ve been in this field, we’ve had many Sandys and every time we have one, we say we’ve got to make our distribution system stronger. But after storm after storm after storm, nothing changes.”


In pictures: 'SUPER STORM' Sandy batters US East Coast
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