Time for the US to bury its not-very-smart grid


Paul Marks, chief technology correspondent

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(Image: Brendan Smaialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Six million people in the US lost their electricity supply when superstorm Sandy brought down overhead power lines across many north-eastern states last week. A nuclear power station and the cloud data centres run by Amazon were also left chugging along on backup diesel generator power. It all looks like leading to calls for the region's highly weather-exposed power lines to be buried underground, no matter the cost.
For instance, Maryland senator Nathaniel McFadden says that, alongside like-minded colleagues, he will now "promote legislation to bury all power lines" so they can cope "no matter what nature hurls at us". Business Insider rightly points out that leaving the power grid open to hurricanes, snow and ice storms is an "obvious flaw in US infrastructure" - especially with billions being spent to secure the grid from cyberattack.
The opposition from utilities to burying power lines in the US is both economic and technical: burying lines in Washington DC alone would cost $5.8 billlion - adding $226 to monthly electricity bills for a decade. Technically, floods and errant construction digging can make buried cable troublesome, too. But the frequency with which life on the north-eastern seaboard is disrupted by outages will probably swing opinion against such factors: hurricane Irene in August 2011 and the "derecho" storm in June caused week-long outages.
Even if, after Sandy, utilities and government ignore the heartache caused to power-deprived residents, there are safety and economic reasons for burying the lines. As Sandy smashed into New Jersey, the Oyster Creek nuclear power station lost off-site power as overhead lines came down. Luckily the station is defuelled and out of service, but it left the cooling system for the spent fuel ponds dependent on backup diesel power. Some say they dodged a bullet.
And what of confidence in the US internet sector? The giant Amazon Web Services has confirmed to New Scientist that it foresaw the likely loss of offsite power as Sandy approached. So it tooled up at its Virginia cloud data centres - which host Reddit, Quora, Hootsuite, Pinterest and Foursquare amongst many other top global sites - with "generator fuel, food/water, flashlights, radios and extra staff".
"The generators were needed," says Amazon spokeswoman Tera Randall in Seattle, Washington. "And all went smoothly." Not all net firms were so lucky, however.
Advocates of the "undergrounding" of the overhead grid hope some kind of infrastructure stimulus funding could pay for it. And one sign that the tide of opinion may be turning is apparent: even the right-wing Fox News is advocating likewise.

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