For years, Philadelphia and the surrounding region have sold itself to tourists on our colonial charms -- walk the cobblestone streets of Old City, check out the crack in the Liberty Bell, or stroll the hallowed hillsides of Valley Forge where George Washington's troops camped out! Maybe they should add the region's circa-1789 power grid to the list. There are more and more nights when Ben Franklin had more electricity in that glass bottle than do residents of Philly's suburbs.
Last Thursday night, on the eve of the Independence Day weekend, a storm rumbled through my neighborhood of insufficient strength to even wake me up, yet it was powerful enough to knock out the lights for me and about 160,000 of my closest friends. Presumably because PECO had given lots of folks off for the long weekend -- probably because no one expected a 10-minute rainstorm to knock out power to tens of thousands of people!!! -- it took 60 hours...count 'em, 60 -- to get the power back.
OK, stuff happens, but last night there was a storm of similar, middling, intensity -- the pavement wasn't even wet when I got off my train last night -- and the lights were off again! The news said that 240,000 lost power for a time (the vast majority in the counties served by PECO...hmmm), which, again, seemed like a lot for a briefly intense but otherwise forgettable weather event. This time there was no electricity for only 6 hours, not 60. I guess I was supposed to be relieved.
Instead, this all has me wondering. I mean, in my lifetime I've seen accidental commercial jet crashes all but disappear and auto deaths drop sharply, even as the number of cars on the road have skyrocketed. That's called progress -- something that seems to have eluded our electric utilities, and especially PECO. Look, maybe we're experiencing more intense storms around these parts (climate ch...oh, never mind) but anecdotally both the number of outages and the duration seem to be more than they were 10, 20 years ago.
Doing a little research, my anecdotal gut instincts were correct. Major power outages in the United States have increased from from 76 in 2007 to 307 in 2011! The American Society of Civil Engineers ranked America's energy grid last year -- and gave it a whopping 'D+.' That's acceptable -- if you're a war-ravage city like Baghdad. For Philadelphia, it's not acceptable, and I wonder why we aren't talking more about this.
When people say why doesn't America invest more in its infrastructure, this may not be Exhibit A -- that would be our crumbling roads and bridges -- but it's definitely Exhibit B. The cost of upgrading all of our aging power lines. nationally. is estimated as high as $2 trillion, maybe more. OK, that's a lot. But would customers be willing to pay a bit more per kilowatt hour for work that would reduce outages? I would. And what about (gulp) government?
President Obama did got some funding for energy upgrades in the 2009 stimulus package, when Democrats still controlled Congress, but much of that when for the so-called "smart grid" -- better management of the flow of electricity. That helps -- but what about replacing all those ancient power lines that run underneath large tree branches. Wouldn't that be, for want of a better term, smart?
Those who say government can't afford infrastructure never mention that right at this moment, government officials are squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on unnecessary tax breaks to politically connected companies. Instead of corrupt crony capitalism, spending those dollars on a dependable infrastructure would be an actual economic development tool. It would create real jobs, especially for middle-class line workers who could use a break in today's economy, and also protect their bosses against financial ruin every time the lights go out.
Or we can root around in the pitch blackness with our flashlights, looking for answers before we run out of "D" batteries, which is what we're doing now.