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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) We need a new way to deliver electricity

September 5, 2011

Let’s hope that by this time everybody has their lights back on and you are not trying to read this with a flashlight or kerosene lamp.
Last week was a hellish time that I don’t want to have to live through again for at least another 20 years or so.
But let it not just be an annoying and frustrating 2-7 days (depending on where you live) in the dark. The blowhards who tried to minimize this by deriding people as soft, or unprepared or crybabies because the lack of electricity for an extended period caused a major disruption in their lives are as short sighted as they are thickheaded.
This, in the immortal words of Vice President Joe Biden, was a big blankin’ deal.
We as a society and now even a world are so dependent on the reliable availability of electricity that we can no longer allow several days or a week to go by without it. Just the computers that electricity runs have become so pivotal to our day-today existence that not having them for days at a time is a genuine problem. And computers are just one of the uncountable thousands of things that have become essential to our existence that become totally useless without electricity. In extreme cases, such as people who use medical oxygen and other life supporting and life sustaining, electricity is literally their lifeline.
There were stories told of restaurants and markets that not only lost several days of business but also had to throw away tons of food that went bad when refrigeration was lost. That was a shame, but I feel even worse for the employees of those establishments, many of whom lost up to a week’s wages because there was a windstorm.
Their bills are still going to roll in, their rent is still going to come due and the landlord isn’t going to want to hear about Hurricane Irene. He wants the rent paid. How many people reading this could afford to lose a week’s pay without notice because your job was called off on account of the weather?
There are going to be some Irene postmortems where folks will determine whether National Grid did a good or lousy job of getting people turned back on after the storm. I’m sure the electric company will point to the deputy secretary of energy who said last Thursday “I don’t know that they could have done better.” But not everyone is going to be satisfied with that.
Last week some, but not all, radio talk hosts were attempting to be the voice of reason, pointing out the extent of the outage problem and pace of National Grid’s response. But in such a situation, the voice of reason is inevitably going to fall on hostile ears.
When I can turn my TV on, then National Grid will be doing the best it can under adverse conditions. Until that time, they are a bunch of dirty, rotten SOBs who are conspiring to keep me in the dark while they give other people electricity. Unreasonable? Absolutely.
But reasonableness is the first thing that goes out the window when you haven’t had a hot shower (or maybe any water at all) for four days, you can’t cook your food and you’ve been stumbling around your house with a flashlight trying to find the bathroom. At that point, you want to smack the voice of reason right in the mouth.
But in a way, how National Grid did putting the lines back up after this storm is beside the point.
The point is that we have to get away from this 20th Century technology of wires and poles that is vulnerable to the vagaries of wind, rain and falling tree limbs. And I don’t mean simply burying the electrical lines in the ground. We need to invent a next-generation way of delivering electricity that is not as easily interrupted. In this world of lasers, microwaves, satellite technology, we need to come up with a way to distribute electric current that doesn’t rely on stringing a wire from point A to point B. If we can learn how to generate electricity with atoms, we can find a way to maintain a reliable, uninterruptable flow of it as well.
How many “green energy” jobs could we generate by embarking on a project of that magnitude? A research and development push equal to the Manhattan Project or the Apollo missions could build the economy as it expands the bounds of science and human knowledge. That should be one of the things President Barack Obama talks about when he addresses a joint session of Congress later this week on jobs. Filling potholes and fixing bridges is one thing, but as the president said in his State of the Union speech last January: “We do big things.” This would be a god place to start.
Congressman Jim Langevin, among many others, is particularly interested in cybersecurity, and, at least in part, how it relates to the nation’s electrical grid. Nature did last week’s damage by accident, what would happen if terrorists set out to do it on purpose?
But if last week demonstrated anything, it showed that terrorists do not need a sophisticated hacking network to bring down the electrical grid; apparently, a bunch of guys with chainsaws could effectively cripple any region they choose by downing a few trees each.
Our everyday lives effectively stopped last week for as many days as each of us was without power. Businesses were disrupted, schools closed, some people’s homes burned down because they were using candles for light. Things are slowly coming back to normal, but how would the chaos be magnified if we were all without electricity for a week or more? How about three weeks?
It was truly a spooky experience last week, driving down Broad Street in Pawtucket, past the brightly lit Walgreens and the yellow Wendy’s sign, with streetlights and traffic lights and all the rest glowing and then, immediately after crossing the bridge into Central Falls, boom, nothing but inky black night. No lights in the houses, no lights in the stores, no streetlights or red lights. It was like a cheap post-apocalypse movie. You can see why the ancients imbued the night and the darkness with such mystery and power.
We are never going to break our reliance on electricity. It is now almost as essential to our lives as food or water. We can not afford to have our connection to it be so fragile. So let’s do something about it before another storm throws us all into darkness again.

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