Friday, July 25, 2008

A snobby Eurotrash rant about America and electricty...

Wifey called me at work and warned me that rolling brownouts were hitting the state.

That meant absolutely nothing to me - so she explained.

Brownouts, apparently, are like electrical blackouts. All your lights dim, your blender slows and your toaster oven doesn't cook bagels so quickly. It's not quite like a blackout - when you lose power altogether - but a brownout basically means your house isn't getting all the electricity it needs to run everything. It happens all the time in America.

This, to me, is an entirely new experience.

Sure, I remember power cuts when I was growing up in England. But that was back in the eighties. For the last twenty years, they've been practically unheard of. All the cables are underground and England's pretty sorted as far as the power is concerned (because it's all privatised, but that's a rant for another day.)

In America, however, things are different (they're also privatised, but that's another rant for another other day.)

First off, the power grid is pretty suspect even in the best of times. Whenever Wifey plugs in the hair dryer, for example, the lights dim like that scene in The Green Mile when the electric chair was switched on. Lights dimming is not a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

Then there are the plugs... In England, we have chunky three-pronged electrical sockets that have a comforting 'click' when they slide into the wall socket. Here in America, because we require twelve appliances plugged in at the same time, as opposed to just one, there's a much sketchier system of two-pronged plugs that look about as robust as something you'd use to plug in an electric train set. What's worse, they actually spark and sizzle when you plug something in.

These sketchy sockets are used to power long daisy-chains of dollar store surge protectors, which mean you end up running long lines of rickety wiring that would have British Fire and Safety screaming in terror.

The average American house generally has wiring that you wouldn't recommend fiddling with unless you had valid life insurance and rubber soled shoes.

Now all the power to our homes comes from power lines, strung along the road on Telegraph poles. These are deliciously precarious things and strong rain storms, lightening or drunk drivers can knock out power to a block simply by pushing one of the poles over. The electric company tries to put a redundancy in to prevent this sort of thing by coiling lots of 'slack' at the top of each pole, so if one falls down, enough cable slacks out to prevent the electric cable snapping.

But it's not an exact science and it looks really crappy and badly strung together. At best, all that cable looks really messy and untidy. At worst, the damn thing snaps whenever a pole gets knocked over and that leads us onto the next thing that happens in America, but not so much in England.

Death by puddles.

Because New Jersey drivers simply aren't very good at driving, they're always driving into telegraph poles and knocking people's power out. Then, hopping cheerfully (or drunkenly) out of their cars, they exacerbate the situation by getting zapped by the fallen power cable.

The problem with all these above-ground cables and telegraph poles is the shitload of live high-voltage wiring that gets knocked over when people drive into them (or the wind blows them over.) If it's been raining, people jump out of their car into a puddle and then become human conductors of thousands of volts of electricity.

This is where the famous America motto (which I cynically thought was invented by Drive-Thru MacDonald's promoters) 'Never get out of the car.' If you crash into a pole, stay in the safety of your SUV until the cops arrive and give you the all clear.

So basically, American houses are badly wired and the electrical grid is strung together by a bunch of incompetents who only got the job because they submitted the lowest tender. If you want to get an impression of just how pathetic the American electric infrastructure is, remember that the three day electrical blackout in 2003 was caused by a single branch falling on a single transformer in Canada.

God help us if al-Qaida ever get their shit together and attack us with lengths of wood. We'd be plunged back into the dark ages overnight.

But ignoring the badly wired American houses and the badly wired American power grid, there's one more crowning achievement in the inadequacies of America's energy incompetence.

There's not enough power to go around.

Considering America is the biggest energy consumer in the world, you might be surprised by this - but it's true. Union heavies promoting inefficient coal power plants, combined with environmental idiots keeping America's nuclear industry four decades behind the rest of the world, has resulted in a nation that can't even supply it's own appetite for waffle irons, air conditioners and electric curling irons.

In the height of summer, when we sweaty Yanks turn on our air conditioners, the power grid suddenly sucks up a whole lot more juice and there's not enough to go around - so we end up getting rolling 'brownouts' as our energy gets thinned out worse than American beer.

It boggles the mind.

I mean, this is America. The greatest nation in the world. It seems remarkable that we can't even supply our own energy without making an (expensive) pig's ear of it.

But where do the problems lie?

Well, let's start at the top and work our way down, shall we?

There's not enough electricity to go around...

As much as I dislike his snotty attitude, Barack Obama's got a point. Our current energy crisis is caused, at least in part, by the fact that we consume an incredible amount of energy. Wifey and I are following the pediatrician's advice and keeping our 650 square feet apartment air-conditioned to a tolerable 76 degrees - and that takes the work of three different air conditioners and four ceiling fans. Our neighbours have bigger houses and chill them to an icy 68 degrees.

The quickest and easiest way to eliminate brownouts would be to ration ourselves and stop consuming so much electricity. If we used less, we'd need less and there'd be more to go around.

The other option is to make more electricity. You'd think this would be the most logical idea and power companies would jump at the opportunity. But the problem is - they can't.

The environmental lobby has protested the building of any new nuclear power stations for thirty years (despite them having provided cheap, clean and safe power for countries like France for decades.) Besides, considering Americans are scared of talcum powder and plastic bottles, you can hardly expect them to line up and volunteer for them to have a big, scary nuclear power station built on their doorstep.

The lumpy old coal power plants still give America the majority of it's power (and the majority of it's pollution) and any talk of shutting them down is met by angry blue collar resistance from the Mafia-like unions, who remind people that the coal industry employs millions of Americans (although if they all got retrained to work in the nuclear industry, they'd statistically live longer, healthier lives than they would working down a coal mine all day.)

Just like the environmentalists block any progress in the nuclear field, the union heavies block any progress in the coal arena. It's all blissfully, transparently corrupt - but apparently nobody's got the testicular fortitude to stand up to them (after all, it's people like this who can win or lose Swing State elections, so politicians don't want to piss them off.)

Finally, the 'acceptable' options, like wind farms and hydroelectric power, run into the most practical problems facing the energy industry. They're expensive and inefficient and although the politicians and public applaud them, these environmentally sound options are never going to get put into production because nobody's stupid enough to invest in them. Besides, people don't want bloody great wind turbines on their horizon any more than a nuclear power station.

The electricity has problems getting to us...

Ignoring the fact that we don't have enough juice to go around, the problem of actually getting it delivered to our house creates major issues.

The snarling cable. The wobbly poles. Why can't we tear them all up and put them underground, where they'll be safely out of the way and less likely to get run into or snapped by falling branches? That's what (adopt snotty Euro accent) we do in Europe.

Well, the fact is, nobody stateside wants to invest in doing that.

The electricity companies are out to make a profit. Large-scale investment in their rickety infrastructure is going to hurt their short-term profits (and they couldn't care less about the long term) so they've got no intention of getting their chequebooks out to fix the problems.

The local townships could do it. You'd think it would be a great idea - providing work for local contractors and making the whole township safer and more beautiful. But despite demanding property taxes ten-times higher than Great Britain, the local township has their hands tied by the greedy school systems and the local law-enforcement, who thuggishly demand their 'pizza de action' and leave very little money left for doing anything remotely useful. (Trust me - our local township resembles Mexico City, but all the local police officers drive about in brand new, $30,000 Dodge Chargers.)

So short of getting a shovel and a wire cutter and doing it ourselves, there's really not much hope that anywhere except the swanky suburbs of Maryland and Connecticut will get their local electric grid sorted out any time soon.

Seeing a pattern here? American politics (and business) is centred around the Short Term Gain and ignoring the Long Term Insurmountable Problems (after all, these can be left to the next Mayor/CEO.)

But it's not all glumness!

No, there is hope!

Okay, I'm not exactly sure what that hope is, where it's coming from or what it consists of, but you know I'm an enormous fan of America in general, so I didn't want to end this rant on a bum note.

Although, with the elections coming up, maybe there is hope for the future.

Barack Obama's right out. With Al Gore strong-arming him, I don't think our Democratic candidate actually has any hope of pursuing a practical solution to the energy crisis.

John McCain's a much stronger proposition. He actually understands the energy crisis and believes in climate change (meaning, unlike most idiotic Republican politicians, he's looking beyond 'drillin' fer more oil, yuck yuck.')

He's actually looking at practical solutions to the energy problem. Like building 150 more nuclear power stations (to the ire of both the lunatic left and retarded right, who want airy-fairy windfarms or more coal and oil power plants respectively.)

John McCain is enough of a maverick to resist the idiots within his own party and the more verbose villains in the environmental movement. He's practical enough to look at both the long term and short term when it comes to finding a solution to the energy crisis.

Maybe - just maybe - there's hope for us yet.

But as for our 'local' problems - like the ropey wiring and precarious telegraph poles?

Well, maybe it's time to just chalk that down as an 'American idiosyncrasy' and stop worrying about it. After all, what's a brownout every now and then?


Tom said...

The lights dimming and the two-prong thing isn't a problem with the power grid... it's a problem with the wiring in your house. I assure you that all of New Jersey does not dim everytime one of you goes to dry your hair.

Overhead wiring is far cheaper than underground wiring to install. (By a factor of 5 to 10) This affects the total cost of service.

The Chemist said...

I used to live in an oil rich Arab country. Power lines? Nuh-uh, those things are underground. My father's a civil engineer and I asked why it isn't done in the US, (he used to work for a city utility department). It all boils down to cha-ching.

It doesn't just cost more to put wires underground, it costs more to maintain them as well. In particular, rats have a nasty habit of chewing through just about anything man can design.

Though if you think American sockets are bad, wait till you see the ones in Jordan. Oh. My. God.

Exile said...

There is probably another factor at work: people are stealing electricity. Most likely not form you directly, because you would notice when you got your bill, but straight from the lines.

What happens is that the power supplier is churning out what he thinks is the optimum amount of juice, but that does not take into account the numbers who are nicking the stuff.

That is probably why your lights dim at certain times - a local shop is using dodgy juice!

Anonymous said...

Would 'a factor of 5 to 10' be similar to our European 'double' ?