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Storms Hurt Grid And Power Companies' Credibility


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. At the end of last month, a line of powerful storms left millions without electricity in the midst of record-breaking heat. The storms killed some as trees fell on houses and cars, then the heat took more lives as people sweltered without fans or air conditioning.

The heat wave's broken, the power's back on for most, but the widespread outages left many frustrated and angry. What took so long? Can't we protect power lines? And what about the crews who arrive to help out?

We want to hear from those of you who work to restore electricity. What don't we understand about what you do? Give us a call, please, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an honest politician on The Opinion Page this week. Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that voters are ready for plain talk. But first, Thomas Kinard, a journeyman lineman and lead skills instructor at the Southeast Lineman Training Center in Trenton, Georgia, he joins us from there by smartphone, and nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

THOMAS KINARD: Thank you, glad to be here.

CONAN: And what's the hardest thing you do when you're called out after lines go down?

KINARD: Well, when you first have a big, major power outage like this, all the companies that come in to help, the supervisors, superintendents, have to get together with the area because we don't know any street names, we don't know any neighborhoods, we don't know where the circuit breakers or the substations are. So the first thing they do is have a major safety meeting.

And one thing people don't realize, everyone could drop something at work or bump into something, and linemen can't afford for the simple mistakes to happen. This is a very dangerous trade. So to find out where we're going to be working, what we're going to be doing, we have to get all the materials there, all the safety aspect part of it has got to be major concern with. So there's a lot more to it just to get started than people realize.

CONAN: Once you do get started and drive out into neighborhoods, and again, it can be a place you've never seen before in your life, never heard of before in your life, then you're in another world.

KINARD: Yes, that's correct. Once we have our destination, and we have our materials, once we get to the street we're going to be working on or say the neighborhood we're going to be working in, even the specs of how people wire their system up may be a little bit different than what we were used to.

You know, it's all going to hook up the same, but it may be in a different place, but a lot of things are different, and we've got to learn the whole new system and try to build it as they recommend at that power company.

CONAN: You've not only got, as you say, dangerous power lines and awkward conditions, you've got people who are pretty upset a lot of the time.

KINARD: Yes, most of the time when we first roll into a major power outage, people are glad to see us, glad we're there and really appreciate the fact that we left our families and our homes to be there to help get their power back on. But my personal experience, once say 75 of the population got their power back on, most line crews then are just in their way.

You know, the traffic, you can see the attitude amongst the people, but the people that's got power, you know, they realize that there are still several, you know, 25 percent of the population still does not have power, and we have got to be able to get to that destination to do the job to get their power back on just like we've been doing before.

CONAN: And everybody who does not power thinks hey, why - my neighbors down the street, they're ready, how come my place isn't fixed up yet?

KINARD: Yeah, we get that a lot. The first thing we do is get the main feeder back up, the primary line, because if it's not turned on, nobody's going to get any power anywhere. And some people may be coming off that primary line, and we've got to get it done first, and then we go back and do the taps and secondary lines that may come off of it.

CONAN: What's the longest you've been out on a job?

KINARD: I worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day for 53 days.

CONAN: For 53 days?


CONAN: When was that?

KINARD: It was in '04 when all them hurricanes hit Florida, and again when Louisiana got tore up so bad with Katrina.

CONAN: Well, I can understand that. Stay with us, we're going to be talking with people who are in your line of work. If you work to restore power, give us a call and tell us what we don't understand about your job, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

But we also want to talk with Greg Reed, associate director of the Center for Energy in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. He joins us now from Tokyo, where he happens to be on business, and thanks very much for being up at this ridiculous hour of the night to talk with us.

GREG REED: Oh my pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: How come the system is not more reliable? We know that there's going to be thunderstorms, we know there's going to be ice storms. Why can't we prepare for this better?

REED: Well, when you look at a lot of our power infrastructure, a lot of is overhead, it's above-ground. In fact, the vast majority of it is, quite honestly. And so it becomes susceptible to hurricanes and storms and high winds and lightning, all of which wreak tremendous havoc on power systems both physically as well as operationally.

So we're a little bit susceptible from that point of view, and I think we've seen a heightened level of activity both from environmental pressures, natural disasters that seem to be occurring a little bit more often. An so we seem to be seeing right now a little bit more in terms of those outages because of the causes from storm damage.

CONAN: To anticipate a question that I think many in our audience will have: Why don't we bury more lines?

REED: Well, that's a great question. One of the first things is the cost to do so. It can be as much as five to 12 or even 15 times more to go underground with power transmission and distribution systems than to do it aboveground. And when you look at a lot of the infrastructure that we have, and you look at the legacy of our system, it's an AC system that was first developed at the turn of the 20th century.

I think a lot of listeners may know the history of Westinghouse and Edison and Tesla as they fought the battles back there in the AC/DC wars. And a lot of what we have is overhead AC lines primarily that were built up between the 1930s and 1970s.

And, you know, we had an act way back then to electrify rural America, and the easiest and most economic way to do that was to build our infrastructure aboveground. And we didn't have a lot of resistance then from the not-in-my-backyard syndrome or other issues about people not wanting to see power lines near where they live and work.

And so there's a lot more pressure in putting new lines up, and so the other thing that's happened is that we really haven't kept up with infrastructure development. The capacity of the transmission and distribution systems have not kept pace with the demand growth, especially over the last several decades or so.

CONAN: You just heard Mr. Kinard saying he's been out on jobs 16 hours a day, seven days a week, 53 days at a time. You would think his overtime and the overtime of the other crew members who are all out on those jobs, that would pay for installation of lines underground pretty quickly.

REED: Yeah, in fact, I think if you look at it strategically, Neal, there are a lot of cases that can be made in certain areas where we more susceptible to this kind of damage than others, where, I agree, I believe that the case can be made not only because of the expense for crews and the folks that go out and work on them and that expense that the utilities have to bear but also because of the tremendous economic loss that tends to be associated with every outage: lost business revenues, not to mention some of the things that you talked about in terms of inconvenience, frustration and in worst case, you know, a lot of pain and suffering, as well.

And so when you start to look at all of those things aggregated, there is more and more of a justification, economically, to do it. And one of the things that's happened, especially in recent decades, is that technologically, we certainly are able to do it and in better ways than we have in the past.

It's not that we do not have underground systems. Most of our dense urban networks, places like New York City, of course, and Chicago and San Francisco and other major cities, are all underground primarily. So we know how to do it, we have the technology, we keep improving technologies, as well.

And one of those technology areas that we do a lot of work on in our research group at the University of Pittsburgh is on direct current technologies, DC, which have a much lighter infrastructure than AC. So when you start to go underground, it becomes less costly, less to maintain.

Now one of the problems in addition to expense, though, with underground networks that others will talk about is the advantage to overhead lines is visualization. So when crews go out to repair overhead lines, even though they might now know exactly where to go, at least they can see things.

In an underground network, you need a lot more sensing and diagnostics and other technological advances to be able to visualize what's in the underground network.

We've been working very good as an industry the last several decades to develop all those technologies to make it much more viable today.

CONAN: Mr. Kinard, is that your experience? Have you worked on underground distribution systems, as well?

KINARD: Yes, yes I have, and most of the new neighborhoods and things that's going up these days are going to underground. But like he said, you know, you still have to have overhead to feed power to the underground.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Matthew's(ph) on the line with us from Big Stone Gap in Virginia.

MATTHEW: Hey, Neal, how's it going?

CONAN: Not too bad.

MATTHEW: You know, my role has kind of been secondary, you know, to the guys who actually are out there climbing the poles and doing the work. I'm a building code official for the town of Big Stone Gap, and I do have a role if there is any change or repair or anything that has to be done to the equipment itself with a house.

You know, in that case, there's inspection that has to be performed and sent back to the power provider.

CONAN: So you're involved in it but, as you say, a secondary basis. But if a repair has to be made, you have to make sure that it's up to code.


CONAN: And how often is it not?

MATTHEW: A lot of times you do see shoddy craftsmanship. You know, I've ran into some things that I've taken pictures of. But, you know, it's (unintelligible), one of things that needs to be repaired, you know, sometimes you don't know what's going on until you open the cover on the box up, and you say oh, you know, this is terrible, this has to be fixed and replaced.

But, you know, part of that, too, whatever is replaced has to meet the newest code. And when that happens, you know, sometimes it's a holdup with the houses. And we had a tornado back in 2008, and it was crazy. You know, we spent hours and hours identifying these electrical services and seeing which ones could be hooked up immediately, which ones had to have further inspections or which ones just need to be completely replaced.

CONAN: All right, well, thanks very much for the call. I guess every once in a while, you open one of those boxes and you're looking into a museum.


CONAN: Appreciate it.

MATTHEW: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the electrical grid and what happens when the lights go off. We want to hear from those of you who work to restore electricity, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. One way to deal with frequent power outages: Build the world's largest rechargeable battery. That's what they did in Fairbanks, Alaska. The massive battery came online in 2003 and can power some 12,000 homes for about seven minutes. A company in China built an even bigger battery earlier this year, making Fairbanks now the second-biggest battery in the world.

We're talking about some questions raised after last week's widespread power outages, and we want to hear from those of you who worked to restore electricity. What don't we understand about what you do? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests: Thomas Kinkade(ph), lead skills instructor at the Southeast Lineman Training Center in Trenton, Georgia and Greg Reed, professor of electric power engineering and associate director of the Center for Energy at the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. And let's go next to Sean, Sean with us from Cherry Hill in New Jersey.

SEAN: Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

SEAN: Yeah, I just wanted to make a few comments. You know, last week, I was down in Atlantic City for about seven days helping to restore power down there. And, you know, a lot of people don't understand, I mean, just the logistics it takes to get hundreds of linemen down there, you know what I mean? Just to put, you know, put people in hotels and to feed them and, you know, show them around.

You know, I mean, you have to usually have someone who shows you - like a bird dog, someone who would show you were to go. And, you know, it takes a lot of work to get people back in power.

CONAN: Can you remember an occasion when it was particularly difficult?

SEAN: Well, you know, just last week. I mean, there's hundreds and hundreds of, you know, jobs that come in, and, you know, you have a lot of crews that are down there working. You know, each job, someone has to go out specifically and look at, you know, and somebody has to actually lay eyes on the job and then send a team of people out there to work on it. So this all takes time. People don't understand that.

And not to mention last week, you know, it was 100 degrees outside. So, you know...

CONAN: Yeah, and you have to wear all that safety equipment, too.

SEAN: Yeah. And, you know, I mean, you're wearing rubber gloves, rubber sleeves. And if you're on the ground, you have rubber boots on. You have to wear long pants, you know, long shirts. And you're outside in 100-degree weather with a lot of clothing on just to be safe.

CONAN: Thomas Kinard, I wonder, that situation, it must have happened to you, too.

KINARD: Oh absolutely, absolutely. And those rubber gloves that he's speaking of, you know, they're anywhere from an eighth-inch thick to three-sixteenths-inch thick. And the sleeves come up to your shoulders and, you know, it's hot. And you're busting your tail trying to get as many lights turned on as possible.

And he just - what he was talking about is what I was mentioning. You know, when you first get to a major power outage, it takes a lot of organization just to get the ball rolling and make sure everybody does it in a safely(ph) manner, because there's not a lot of room for mistakes in our line of work.

CONAN: And you've got to make sure that people get some rest because, as you say, this is difficult and dangerous work, and you have to be safe.

KINARD: Yeah, that's the number one priority, to be safe. Every major storm, we have a death. It may be an employee on the job. It may be a citizen, a pedestrian. I heard this morning that we had - a line worker got killed in an automobile accident trying to get up to the D.C. area to do some work. So we need to keep, you know, the line workers and their families in our prayers, as well.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sean.

SEAN: No problem.

CONAN: Let's go - I wanted to ask Greg Reed: We had a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who said that a large part of the problem in terms of delays is that there are not enough linemen, that we have half the number of linemen we had 15 years ago. Is that part of the challenge?

REED: I think it is. You know, our industry went through a tremendous deregulation period in the 1990s, and that did leave some of our organizations with fewer people to be able to respond to these types of incidents. But, you know, our utilities in the U.S. are tremendous. People like Thomas and his colleagues across the country that do this work, I have so much admiration for them because, you know, they really put, as he's mentioned, their lives on the line to do this work.

And, you know, the utilities, like all businesses, are under more and more pressure, you know, to be able to provide safe, reliable and economic power and turn a profit for their shareholders. And so just like any business, you know, the pressures of downsizing were something that happened to the industry as it became less regulated than it had been prior to the 1990s.

And so there probably are, you know, fewer crews, but the talent that does respond to these is tremendous. Again, I think one of our jobs is to do a better job of making the system more reliable. And what we've been finding over the last several decades, of course, is that some of that reliability, because we haven't expanded the physical infrastructure of the grid, it has eroded a little bit over the years.

And so we're beginning again to see some of the aging of the infrastructure come into play here, but again, just additional stresses that we're putting on it in terms of the demand that we have from our electrical systems.

And again, one of the things that I think sometimes people take for granted is how affordable electricity is, yet how incredibly reliable it is. When you look at the U.S. network, it's probably one of the most complex, interconnected, sophisticated systems in the world, and yet we have very, very high reliability because of the way our utilities operate and maintain the networks.

CONAN: Let's go next to David, David with us from Richmond, Kentucky.

DAVID: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, David. Go ahead, please.

DAVID: Right, right. For a comment, you mentioned early in the program that this lengthy outage situation has increased. It seems like it's always happening somewhere.

CONAN: Yeah.

DAVID: And the cause of these things is trees knocking down power lines. And because of that, companies do not spend the money that they should be spending to get those trees away from those power lines, and the people who suffer are the customers who are out of power for so long.

CONAN: Thomas Kinard, the trees certainly knock down the power lines, fall into houses, too. You can get very dangerous situations, and I do know that some power companies will go out and trim back the big branches to see if they can avoid that.

DAVID: But that's not nearly enough, and they could do a whole lot more, and they're not doing it.

CONAN: Let's let Mr. Kinard answer. Go ahead, please.

KINARD: He's right. Trees is a big part of it. But what I saw on this end is when you go out to trim trees, a lot of the homeowners and the property owners that own the land that the trees are on do not want you to cut back but so much. They don't want to lose their trees.

So we're in kind of - between a rock and a hard place when it comes to trimming the trees. You know, we're allowed to trim so much, but there's a lot of times we would like to go back a little further just to be on the safe side, and a lot of times the property owners just will not let us do it.

CONAN: Is that what the - you do when the lines are not down, Tom?


CONAN: Yeah. So you spend your time in prevention, if you can.


CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call.

REED: Neal, if I could add to that, vegetation management is a big expense for utilities, and it's a constant upkeep. And again, this is another one of these areas, preventively, if we have more underground infrastructure, that's less tree trimming and less management that we have to do that again will help to reduce the frequency of these events.

CONAN: Here's a question, though, from email and Andrew: Instead of putting all these transmission lines underground, why not do similar to the Alaska Pipeline with an enclosed pipe, but aboveground? Greg Reed, is that considered in some places?

REED: That could be a viable option, as well. I think what we're find is whether it's, you know, high above ground, like transmission towers and lines that we have today for the most part, or if it's more of a low-level aboveground infrastructure, it's still aboveground and people don't want to see it. People don't want it in their backyards.

And that's really been the big resistance that we've had, especially in the last couple of decades, to get new transmission in, is that people don't want power lines, you know, near where they live, near where they work or play. And so while that might have some small advantage in certain applications, I think for the most part, if it remains aboveground, it will continue to be difficult.

And that, you know, going underground - and it will still be susceptible, to a great extent, to a lot of these disasters, even though it may be enclosed. It'll be certainly better than what we have in terms of the typical, pole-type structures that we see today, but it certainly won't provide the more robust resiliency of a more complete underground network.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ken, and Ken's on the line with us from Sacramento.

KEN: Yeah, hi there.


KEN: Basically, the issue, and that - one of your callers just hit on it, and that is it's trees and power lines. I'm a fire prevention - at least I was a fire prevention officer in California, and the power lines here, because they cause huge fires, the trees are regulated. So the power companies actually have to trim the branches back, which is extremely expensive, and the power companies really don't want to do it.

The - in the rest of the country, as far as I'm aware, there is no regulation that actually requires the power companies to maintain their lines that way, that is keeping large trees, dead limbs away from the power lines so that when you have a weather event the trees don't fall onto the power lines.

CONAN: Thomas Kinkade(ph) - Kinard, excuse me, can you help us there?

KINARD: Yes. He's right. You know, it's not like it is in California and most places. But one thing that the power companies got to be aware of is when the limbs get low enough to actually touch the power lines that's when it could be a danger for the whole area. That's one thing that they try to get out and keep it maintained. And the more expense that the power company spends on the trimming the trees, also they end up having to pass it on to the people that pays their light bills. And they don't want to do that, you know?

CONAN: I was just going to ask. Ken, as a result of this regulation, is electricity more expensive in California?

KEN: Yeah. That one you'd have to ask some other expert...


KEN: I know that the power companies are required to trim the lines. Those costs are actually part of the ratemaking, which means that the ratepayers pay for the tree trimming. One of the things that we found a few years back was that the power companies were charging the customers for trimming the trees and then pocketing the money. I don't think they do that anymore because they got caught.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

KEN: Sure.

CONAN: Here's an email. This from Lisa in Maine. A lineman here tells me that the team in the southern half of the state in Maine is - now has - down to 16 linemen from more than 70 just 10 years ago in part, he says, because owners no longer live nearby and see here the problem. Central Maine Power is now owned by a firm in Spain after first being purchased by Florida Power and Light. So that's a complaint about that system in Maine. We're talking about the power grid after the terrible problems that left millions in the dark in the middle of the heat wave just the past couple of weeks.

Our guests are Thomas Kinard, a lead skills instructor at the Southeast Lineman Training Center in Trenton, Georgia, and Greg Reed, professor of electric power engineering and associate director at the Center for Energy in the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Matt is on the line. Matt calling us from Hardy, Kansas.

MATT: Actually, Hardy, Arkansas.

CONAN: Arkansas. Well, I can't read. That's my problem. Forgive me.

MATT: That's fine. Most of the people around here, you know, have me wondering if they can read as well.


MATT: I was just bringing a unique perspective to as far as the (unintelligible) power lines. I was recently retired from the Navy and my primary job was anti-terrorism force protection. And the one reason that the earlier professionals touched on the major cities really kind of stems back from earlier - from the Clinton era of anti-terrorism force protection, trying to eliminate any and all potential targets and being the fact that our infrastructure is known throughout the globe as being old and brittle, that kind of seems to be a sore spot.

And one of the things we used to talk about during these conventions for districts or regional conventions with Homeland Security, the power companies, you know, it's a huge, huge, you know, undertaking to bring all these people together and start talking about the idea is the simple fact that that, and I don't know if the companies knew of it, but as far as I knew, there are federal grant programs to assist on areas that are hard hit either through weather or be potential targets to bury the lines in the ground.

CONAN: The counterterrorism aspect of this, Greg Reed, is that a significant problem?

REED: Well, I think what we see - and he makes a good point - is there are more heightened issues and awareness around anti-terrorism when it comes to the grid. Obviously, you know, we're high on the grid and electricity as the lifeblood for modern society, so it is a critical infrastructure. And when it is exposed, the way it is to an extent, it does become susceptible to terrorist activity. And it isn't just from the physical side. It's also from the cyber side. So we've actually had probably even more concern in recent years over cyber security...

CONAN: About computer hackers, shutting down the power structure, that sort of thing. All right. Go ahead.

MATT: And there's...

CONAN: Go ahead, Matt.

MATT: There's also one other thing to kind of piggyback off the costs. Recently, I think it was a year or two years ago - my mother still lives here - that's why I ended up retiring here. They had a huge ice storm. And in the paper, they threw out the cost analysis that it was going to cost anywhere from 15 to 18 million to bury the land cable around where the homes were that pretty much obtained most of the damage because of all the tree limbs. 'Cause out here, I'm actually driving and, you know, I'm seeing power lines go into trees, you know, going through trees.

Whereas originally, I was from California, Los Angeles, and we never really saw that. And yet for them to say it's for - to repair just for a one-time fix was five, you know, about five and a half, six million. Well, you know, we have a couple of bad weather years in a row and it's (unintelligible). So, that's kind of my thinking, is, you know, why are such areas still so slow on just kind of, I guess what I would see more cost effective and just doing the right thing.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it. I wanted to end with this email we've got from Russell: I'm responding as a citizen that the electrical workers have helped in the past. I work each day in Vineland, New Jersey, which was one of the most severely hit by the recent storms in the past week as I drive through Vineland and still see electrical trucks repairing power. I just wanted to thank all of the power workers. There are some streets in this town where the downed trees cover 75 to 80 percent of the streets and sidewalks, waiting to be removed.

In a local park, it appears about 25 percent of the trees were damaged and downed. A couple of days ago, some of those streets were still impassable. Thanks again. So, Thomas Kinard, a little thank you note there from somebody who appreciates what you and your fellow line operators do.

KINARD: Well, that's nice to hear. That's one thing that keeps us going. It sure is a good feeling when you're able to get a lot of people's power turned back on. It's one of the reasons we do what we do. I want to elaborate on something. I think Sean(ph) said earlier about the number of line workers that's been down in the 1900s. I know the problem that we're going to be coming into here in the near future is 48 percent of the workforce today is retirement age in line work, so...

CONAN: Well, we have to look forward to that problem. But thank you very much for your time today.

KINARD: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Thomas Kinard, a journeyman lineman, lead skills instructor at the Southeast Lineman Training Center in Trenton, Georgia. Our thanks as well to Greg Reed, professor of electric power engineering and associate director of the Center for Energy at the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.