Comments on: The clown-show economics of storm-hit utilities, and in search of open primaries Steven Brill Tue, 19 Aug 2014 18:30:28 +0000 hourly 1 By: magicdragonfly Thu, 15 Nov 2012 18:37:54 +0000 So a few things about disaster response.
1. Did you know that your local fire brigade is wholly understaffed to manage “the big bad one”? Indeed, they’re only staffed to manage a fire of moderate intensity, unless you live in a large city. But even New York was calling for help from surrounding cities during the attacks of 11 September 2001.
2. Ditto for your local police department. If there’s a riot in your town, expect them to cry out for help from surrounding communities.
3. This is entirely how the playbook is written.

You can’t afford the cost of a gold-plated disaster response team that can manage anything, anytime. More than that, you don’t want that.
Disasters, thankfully, are a rare event. To have adequate staffing on a local level would require massive resources, and on top of that, the responders would spend about 99.99% of their time training for something they’d likely never see in their lifetimes. Ask any firefighter in, say, South Bend, IN, how he’d respond to a 100 story high rise fire.

Utility companies and emergency responders are smart to allocate local resources that will cover their realistic needs. For everything else, they’re smart to draft contingency plans that include how (and whom) to contact to bring in extra support in times of unexpected need.

Look at the facts: New York hasn’t been touched by a storm of Sandy’s magnitude in ages. Why is it reasonable that power crews suitable for managing such a storm are kept around, when mutual aid agreements with utilities around the country and Canada are already in place, and have boots on the ground within 48 hours? Millions of people in New York and New Jersey were affected, and yet not even .001% of the people died as a result. More people died in 9/11, and look at the bazillions of dollars that have been spent very questionably, and the massive hit to the global economy that this has brought. You want more of that?

You’re demanding protection equivalent to a fire engine on every street corner (and the costs that brings) to protect against an occurrence where you’re far more likely to be struck by lightning.

Let’s get real, please.

By: sangell Wed, 14 Nov 2012 23:36:19 +0000 Well I suppose Mr. Brill and those who imagine they understand the economics of utilities from talking to two guys from Hawaii and Alaska could apply their economic theories to their local police and fire departments and pay the necessary taxes. Do you want to have a fire department capable of handling any fire on its own, a suburban police department with its own bomb disposal team, crime labs etc even if they do nothing most of the time? Want to pay the pensions for these supernumeraries?

Utilities have mutual aid agreements but it is quite rare to have the largest population center in the nation get pummelled by a hurricane. Of course there will not be enough local linemen unless you want to pay outlandish distribution costs to keep an army of linemen, bucket trucks and supplies on hand to meet every contingency.

By: matthewslyman Wed, 14 Nov 2012 14:44:44 +0000 The weather can sometimes get pretty bad in my part of Britain… 2083149/Wind-turbines-cope-UK-weather-3- blown-pieces.html
— However, in Britain, we have a fairly robust power grid (which rarely experiences millisecond power outages) even in these conditions. Buried cabling helps a lot!

I believe the ideal solution for North America (cities and rural areas alike) would be MICROGENERATION. Even if your local renewables can only service 1/3 of your usual needs, that can still make a big difference during a disaster like this.

Please cut the power companies a little slack: salt water is no good for electrical infrastructure, and I read that they had a lot of that in some parts of the NYC subway system. It’s no wonder if it takes a while to get on top of this!

By: emmanduke Wed, 14 Nov 2012 12:36:30 +0000 How about commenting on FEMA’s role in helping the utilities when disasters like Katrina and Sandy hit communities hard?

By: Wimbledon Wed, 14 Nov 2012 05:06:12 +0000 Good article, but out of date regarding California and open primaries. CA did even better – the top two open primary candidates, irrespective of party, compete in the general election. So in our House district we had a fresh Democratic face competing against a Democrat who had well outlived his ability, but who would never have lost had he been up against a Republican. CA is headed toward a truly centrist representative government.

By: Andvari Wed, 14 Nov 2012 01:33:36 +0000 Spot on article. We have to bring the lobbyists and the corporations they represent to heel by making elected officials less beholden to them, and improve the power/transmission grid to make it more efficient. Possible, yes. Probable, no.

By: Rumphius Wed, 14 Nov 2012 00:39:08 +0000 You ask:

> “… What has happened to this most basic core of our [Electric] infrastructure …” ?

I do not know, but think we have ourselves to blame. We supported “deregulation” of the this basic infrastructure service to get cheaper electricity. After all we reasoned, private industry and market competition can do it better. And I think we get what we pay for (the shell companies with few line crews, plus profits for more companies, fewer local line crew jobs, etc).

Of course, the distribution system for the power is still a monopoly. Who would want to pay for this infrastructure twice? You may have noticed that they don’t even like to maintain it any more (i.e. tree trimming, etc). The risks and returns would not favorably impress an investor, so I would guess that two distribution systems is just a silly investment suggestion.

And if you think your electrical infrastructure was a mess after the hurricane, imagine that there were two independent electrical distribution systems taken down by one tree. Who should fix what and when? Are both power grids powered down, or just one? What happens if one power grid shorts to the second? Is it safe to work on the second system after the first is powered up? Two distribution systems goes beyond silly and becomes dangerous to the lives of your new friends.

I think the actual power in your local distribution system is what was at least partially “deregulated”. They split the bill with the “local” distribution company stuck with responsibility for the high risk, capital intensive distribution system. They get the commodity part of the deal. They buy their power or maybe even produce it, resell it to you at a profit, but their accountants probably want these companies to keep their capital investments low, and not waste margin on employees or distribution systems.

So who are you mad at? I would guess you think you are mad at the company that owns and operates the local distribution system. This system was probably built when a single company got to own 100% of both the distribution system and the power generation system. Now they may get only half the bill. In these cases, they will have less income per mile of wire to support expensive line crews. So they staff for a minimal run rate and outsource peak demands for line crews. This approach works most times, unless there is a demand spike for services…

So have you looked at phone companies lately? Have you notice how things work great unless there is some unexpected demand spike? This didn’t use to be a problem back in the days of the “big” ATT when they were required to maintain extra capacity for emergencies, and they had the scale to afford it. Heck, they use to even be able to invest in basic research, etc. at Bell Labs. How quaint… :-)

By: GA_Chris Tue, 13 Nov 2012 23:19:59 +0000 We need regulation and government that works for the people, not their next donations…

The USA, the best democracy money can buy

By: OneOfTheSheep Tue, 13 Nov 2012 21:29:07 +0000 Mr. Brill,

You hit the bell loud and clear on “storm-hit” utilities. Except for them it’s “business as usual” and it’s the people, primarily taxpayers, the disabled, the retired and, of course, the able-bodied “stay-at-homes”, that are the most “storm hit”. I consider myself lucky to be served by a local co-op utility with real “boots on the ground” and an office and employed work crews in the town near where I live.

As for immigration, yet, it’s a mess. America keeps GIVING a “cut the line path to citizenship” to fence-jumpers that are an economic burden in total cost beyond defense spending! We clearly aren’t serious about controlling our borders or we’d mine them and leave the bodies to warn those tempted that the risk isn’t worth it. That won’t reverse the ever-increasing “diversity” of this nation, but it sure will slow down the present rate of “transition” to a voting majority that do not and will not economically and meaningfully contribute (put in more than they siphon off one way or another) to the fiscal well being of the country.

By: bcrawf Tue, 13 Nov 2012 19:32:38 +0000 Well, Mr. Brill, you have seen the future — your utility service has been outsourced and, yep, it is you who will pay whatever it turns out to cost (though not necessarily on a per job basis), since the guarantee of a set profit is in place. But, just be glad Romney did not get elected (this time, anyway), considering that he was ready to outsource (to his buddies, of course) any public program that had revenue, and discontinue the rest.

Thanks for writing about the utility matter. Most of the innocent US population still cannot grasp that our democracy is fast sinking into oligarchy. We have won a little breather by electing Obama again, but the margin of victory offers little room for optimism that people will wake up in time for the next assault. We are mostly living in a dream of a past era of US wellbeing.