Last week’s big blizzard offered yet more proof that our electricity infrastructure is antiquated, even downright dangerous. But all that snow and blow also became an opportunity to see how we can improve our prospects with smart planning, forward thinking, and savvy investments.
First, let’s celebrate our community’s emergency response teams, including many volunteers, who did an amazing job. I was at Dennis-Yarmouth High School Saturday night and again Monday afternoon, where hundreds of people needing shelter filled the gym. I saw scores of gestures of kindness and support, compassionate care for people and pets alike.
And let’s applaud power company frontline crews from near and far, who did their best to battle us back to normal. We deeply appreciate their hard work and commitment.
But let’s take a big step back and understand that our power grid, built like a giant spider’s web threading through swaying trees and across windswept expanses, strung together on telephone poles that in many cases are decades old, is so vulnerable that with every big storm, we are knocked out.
That doesn’t have to be the case.
Everyone understands that when the wires are buried, the power stays on. But doing that kind of work means investing for the future, not just maximizing short-term returns. It means planning now for tomorrow’s needs.
Utility companies are responsible to their shareholders, who often are focused on the quickest and best return on their private investments. That is their ownership structure, That is their financial mandate.
And so we don’t see our antiquated power lines improved and protected with long-term investments that eat into short-term profit. Instead, we see a grid that cannot stand up to the big storms that inevitably come. And then we see emergency shelters, property damage, even loss of life -- and heroic responses from the public sector, and private volunteers.
For similar structural reasons, we also see a nuclear power plant in Plymouth that has been shut down multiple times in the last few months for “minor” mechanical problems, shut down again during the storm. Because the plant remains profitable to its investors, we remain dependent on aging, centralized technology.
I love the idea (not original to me) of doing a study to figure out the true costs and reasons of power outages like we’ve just faced. What is the real cost of businesses being closed, homes damaged, schools shuttered, people transported and sheltered, even lives lost?
And then, what would be the cost to fortify the existing system, as well as bury lines, foot by foot, region by region, prioritizing the most vulnerable spots?
My guess is that the infrastructure investments we could make now (investments we should have made years ago) will pay for themselves many times over. And that would be just as true for every kind of infrastructure investment we could make, from roads and bridges to schools and public transportation. It’s just that the payback brings returns to our communities and neighborhoods, rather than to stockholders in the utility companies.
If this means that as consumers, we see the costs of future investments showing up in next month’s utility bill, I would suggest the following:
Make that bill transparent. Show exactly how much of what we pay is going to investment, how much to operations, and how much to corporate profit and executive salaries.
When it comes to innovation, construction, and management, our private sector achieves amazing results. But when it comes to priorities for energy production, distribution, and long-term capital investment, the “free market” needs real direction.
That’s the role of government. And if anyone still has doubts about that, look at the fragile power lines overhead, and remember this week’s blackout.