Dying Is Easy; Electricity Is Hard
Electricity is one of those things that is easy to take for granted. All you have to do is flick a switch and somehow, from somewhere, the juice turns on and does just what you want it to do. Most of us rarely think about all the things that need to happen for this to be so.
But with the simultaneous rises in energy prices and climate-change concern, there has been a lot of news lately about how electricity is generated and transmitted, and there surely will be much more in the coming years. In The Times alone, you can read recent articles about Exelon’s failed (so far) takeover of NRG; Al Gore‘s energy prescriptions, which include a salient point about beefing up our electrical grid; and an article by Matt Wald about how the existing grid may be weakened as more solar and wind power are generated.
Judging from your responses to our “Advice for Obama” plea, a lot of you are also very interested/concerned about our electric future (and a significant fraction of you really, really want to see Amory Lovins installed as energy secretary).
Another reason that we typically don’t think much about electricity production is that its negative externalities — especially the carbon waste generated by all that coal burning that generates nearly half of all U.S. power — are so far-removed from the point of our consumption that it is easy to not think about them. As we once wrote in a column about the possible U.S. renaissance of nuclear power, far more coal miners die in China each year (about 4,700 last year) than have died in history from nuclear power. Even in the U.S., an average of 33 coal miners die each year. We’ve also written about ongoing underground coal fires.
All of these macro issues are daunting and fascinating. But a great article in Sunday’s Times by Ken Belson shows how daunting — and fascinating — the micro issues can be too. Belson tags along with a pair of maintenance workers from Con Ed, which supplies electricity to New York City and environs, as they inspect the high-rise towers and transmission lines to make sure they are ready for winter weather. You should read the entire article, but here is my favorite part:
Like Con Ed’s half-dozen other inspection teams, the two men inspect about 30 towers a day. First, they use binoculars to survey the joints of the steel towers and the health of the equipment at the top. The ceramic, circular insulators, for instance, can be damaged by lightning — or by frustrated hunters, who have been known to shoot at them when deer are scarce.
They search the base of the tower for cracks and graffiti, a telltale sign of potential damage elsewhere. Sometimes, intruders dump washing machines, cars, and barrels of toxic chemicals around the towers. Thieves try to remove grounding wires in hopes of selling the copper in them.
Nests are another potential hazard. Hawks, vultures, and raptors carry food to their perches that can end up damaging equipment. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures can also short-circuit feeders when they leap off cables and discharge streams of excrement that, at up to 12 feet long, can simultaneously touch a live wire and a grounded structure. Nests without eggs in them are removed.
Then there are the trees — hundreds of thousands of them. Con Edison uses light detection and ranging technology, or Lidar, to keep track of every tree, cable, tower, and other structure on its property. To create a map accurate to within two feet, helicopters equipped with devices that shoot 50,000 laser pulses a second survey the pathways. The heights of the objects below are determined by how fast the laser beams bounce back.
It is hard to read this article and not have at least a bit more appreciation for the magic that occurs every time you flip the switch on your bedside lamp.