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Why the lights go out

Blame it on squirrels, wind, or the power companies?

By Forrest Whitman

Soon enough we’ll be seeing power outages and flickering lights in the high country. This happens every year, usually about the time the big winds come. There’s not much any power company can do when huge winds toss trees around. Even when there’s been right-of-way tree trimming, sooner or later some tree is going to take out a power line. Surprisingly enough, the statistics show some other causes I hadn’t thought of – squirrels and power company policies.

Those pesky squirrels

  From time to time we read about big portions of a state going black because a squirrel had immolated itself on a big power line. In Iowa this spring 1,500 customers were knocked out by a squirrel’s self-sacrifice. Another incident in Kansas knocked out more than 10,000 customers. Usually repairs take very little time because the computers can pinpoint the outage with great accuracy, but some outages have lasted half a day or so. The website of the Electric Power Research Institute isn’t my idea of a fun read, but the statistics are pretty astounding. In one month, South Carolina suffered three major outages caused by squirrels, and two good-sized airports lost all but emergency power. Austin Texas recorded 300 animal-caused power outages in one year. Those were mostly little outages, but if you’re out of light and heat (or air conditioning in the South) for a couple of hours it’s not a little one to you.

This is all particularly ominous for the high country. The traditional high country squirrel is a little guy. He may chew through a power line now and again, but mostly he can’t get all the way through. Also, unlike fox squirrels, he can’t reach across two lines, die there, and fry the system. Stretch as he might, he’s just not long enough. He may chew into a resistor, but it’s pretty rare for him to cut a full line. It’s the larger fox squirrels who do all of those bad things. It is an ominous trend that fox squirrel territory is expanding. We have more and more fox squirrels up in the high country and that increases the danger incrementally.

Synanthropes: My new word for today

  The electric power research people will give you a grant if you have some idea of what to do about synanthropes (my new word for today). Those are animals that love to live with human habitations. Ordinary mice can cause power outages as can the hawks and owls that like to catch the mice. Pack rats are notorious and even skunks can come into play. We humans have created a neat nesting ground, or restaurant, for many of these creatures. The researchers suggest (as they long have) that about all one can do is to screen out these critters. Poison doesn’t seem to work because they always pick an inconvenient place to die, often cuddled up to some electrical equipment. They smell bad in heating ducts too. Cats and dogs are unreliable. All that’s left is screening, and that’s hard to do on a million mile power grid. The best we can hope for is a quick repair job.

It All Started in Colorado

  Today’s electric power grid was first demonstrated in 1891 in Colorado. Alternating Current was first touted by Nikola Tesla here in Colorado. He was in a long tussle with Thomas Edison. At that early stage Edison was wedded to direct current, DC. But Tesla was convinced alternating current AC would work best. His ideas were first tried out in Telluride. That year a funnel tube was set up in the south fork of the San Miguel River. The water turned a turbine and the turbine sent power about three miles up hill to the Gold King Mill. The scheme worked beautifully. In fact, it still works. The Ames hydroelectric plant feeds somewhere round 3.75 megawatts of electricity into the grid. I once heard a lecture about the plant in which the lecturer argued that Ames changed American history forever.  Unfortunately, today our power grid is nowhere near as reliable as that early one was.

Why are power companies so hard to change?

  I’ve stayed up late reading assessments of the power grid and I still don’t understand much of it. The system really does sound chaotic. The grid is designed to operate under something called self-organized criticality.” A good example of why that sometimes doesn’t work was the 12 hour power outage in southern California. In theory when the H-NG power line shut down at Palo Verde, the power lines in central California should have been able to take the extra load. They didn’t and the whole grid came down. So, why aren’t the power companies building more lines, working on more redundancy? Partly the answer lies with the free market. The electric power institute blames poor communication lack of “real time situational awareness,” and sloppy planning. Alas, all of that takes money.
Everyone wants to maximize profit, but no one wants to do the heavy investment needed in a more robust, smarter, grid. At least that’s one way to interpret the statistics. Another way to interpret them would be to say that the grid is so big and so complicated that it’s hard to see how to build more heavy transmission lines, or where to build them smarter.

Is green energy one answer?

  Advocates for solar and wind argue that building more lines would help balance the grid for non-traditional sources of power. This could also mean a “smarter grid.” When the grid isn’t being fully used for coal and gas powered energy, it could be used for wind and solar. That hasn’t worked for many politicians however. We saw how the failure of Soyndra Corp. turned into a political football. Green energy might have to come from local power groups. That concept would be going back in history.

Bring Back The Neighborhood Power Plant?

That first AC power plant in Telluride worked so well because it served a very local area. Some advocates for alternative power think we could go back to those very local plants. Central City, after all, had its own power plant before the grid came along. The mills in Black Hawk generated their own power with coal. Getting off the grid continues to be a dream for many individual home owners, and a good many have managed to do it. When power goes out in the neighborhood they’ll still have light and heat.

Keep good batteries handy

  Mountain dwellers know to keep good emergency light sources handy. A reading light is a good investment. That way you can spend long hours reading fascinating documents like the Federal regulators report on the San Diego power outage. It’s guaranteed to help you doze off in your sleeping bag.

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