Bishop: A Fine Whine?

Thursday, November 09, 2017
Brian Bishop, GoLocalProv Guest MINDSETTERâ„¢

National Grid
OMFG, if that is legitimate to write in the pages of such an august journal. Never have I heard such lily-livered wussy whining from virtually every point of the political compass as the popular sport of beating up on National Grid has become a statewide obsession since our little-unnamed hurricane.

Indeed we see hurricane Gina tryin to bring swift justice to those slackers. The nerve of them not having hundreds of trucks at the ready to rush into the teeth of the gale. The Lieutenant Governor is right behind, or in front, hard to keep track. These petulant politicians are displaying their usual talent for bread and circus, as if our Don Quixotes to slay the evil corporate demons.

Where were all of you when we were fighting stuff that mattered, like massive overspending on the Deepwater Wind contract where National Grid folded for a piece of the pie. And now you don’t like them because it took them 4 days to put the state back together after a hurricane. Move to Puerto Rico why don’t you.

Sandy

If you’re a politician complaining who has, you know, a staff, let me give you a hint. They have this thing called the internet which reveals, with barely as many clicks as it took you to read this article, that the outages from last weeks storm were more widespread than superstorm Sandy which preceded it by 5 years to the day. During Sandy, approximately 116,000 Rhode Islanders lost power on October 29th and it was restored by November 2nd. During last weeks little dust-up, as many as 155,000 lost power in Rhode Island the night of October 29th and it was restored by November 2nd. And this is a catastrophe because?

The Governor who has bravely resisted the cattle call to oppose the Clear River gas energy plant was stampeded on this. Where oh where are the public officials who will say to folks who live on dead-end roads in the middle of nowhere when 15 million people are out of power in the northeast to shut up and get to the back of the line.

How can we claim to be the independent problem-solving descendants of a nation borne of proud self-reliant stock? Three days without electricity and we’re ready to melt down as if the Wicked Witch with a bucket of water thrown her way. God forbid a real catastrophe came along, an electromagnetic pulse or cosmic ray shower. All these post-apocalyptic television dramas couldn’t hold a candle to what a basket case this country would be. 

Several weeks ago I recommended that Puerto Rico seriously consider how much of a grid it really needs, because the grid is not itself a civilization. It is the things the grid provides, light, refrigeration, systems operation.  These days you can help the fortunes of Xi Jinping by buying some Chinese LED lights that will run for hours on a single rechargeable battery with lumens sometimes equivalent to your installed lighting. And then you can take the batteries to somewhere with power and charge them and transport the power back.

Nemo

That solves the dark, what about the cold. We were fortunate that the weather last week during the power outage was a balmy 70 degrees and even one cold night didn’t come close to the freezing mark. But that was not the case in winter storm Nemo that knocked out power to 191,000 Rhode Islanders.  The lesson of storms like this, coming when we aren’t about to freeze, is that homeowners ought to determine how they can run their heating systems in case of a power outage. In other words, we should remember how to take care of ourselves.

Most heating systems can run on a fairly small amount of power. Modern pumps and blowers are quite efficient and can often be retrofitted onto existing systems although one shouldn’t write off the good old-fashioned steam system. If you have one with a millivolt gas valve you don’t even need any electricity to run your heat. Your good old fashioned gas hot water heaters don’t need any power either. Even gas hydronic heat can often circulate a bit on its own without pumps running. If you have electric hot water or heat, you are out of luck. Maybe that should make you think twice about whether you should have gas or oil instead.

But what about the lack of cold, i.e. your refrigerator? Don’t open it. That’s rule one. Nanny state types tell you start throwing stuff out after 4 hours. I don’t know what they are smoking. Ours left closed last week made 24 hours without thaw in the freezer and I still ate the crab bisque at that point that was pushing its expiration date. Of course, if the outage will be extended, think of using the more perishable items, e.g. thawed uncooked meat. But essentially, avoid opening it; think about what you are going to take out before you open it so you can do so quickly; but don’t slam the door in a rush to close it as this encourages air exchange where warmer room air is forced into the fridge displacing cooler air.  Three days without electricity though, you need a solution. You could throw a party in the dark the first day and eat it all, but as with your heating system, it likely would take only a modest amount of electricity to run just your fridge

Various forms of backup power are available. Installed automatic switching generators are the Cadillac, but they cost like it. Small portable generators are quite inexpensive albeit they need to be run out of the horrible ethanol gas they make us use these days after each use. But you can also use an inverter attached to your car electic system to do the job. For that matter, if you own a hybrid car, you own a generator. The car companies have been typically behind the curve in recognizing that so-called plug-in hybrids ought to work in both directions, power out as well as power in to the car. This could be a permanent solution for the rugged rural areas of Puerto Rico but it is a potentially elegant solution for those on the mainland who will have a nervous breakdown if their power is out for a week.

Of course you need to work with knowledgeable folks to institute these strategies and to make sure you don’t try to run more than your back-up can handle which can harm those appliances so they won’t work when power does come back. But simple things, like making it so you can get to the cords on your refrigerator so you can plug it into a generator go a long a way. And creating a switch and jack which allow you to isolate your boiler from the house electrics and plug it in aren’t much of a challenge but always easier to do before the power goes off.

Irene

We live on one of those dead-end roads, a beautiful backwater, but it took two weeks for us to get power after Irene (and just as long after Nemo). That’s what it is like to live out in the sticks, and if you don’t want to take responsibility for yourself you should think about moving back to civilization. But, for the rest of us, this ought to be a lesson for our own preparation, not National Grid’s.

Grid needs our attention alright, but not their storm response. The communication could be improved and obviously, their computer algorithms for populating their outage map with unreleastic early estimates for power restoration didn’t help everyone’s opinion of them, albeit I think it is pretty cool to have access to the geographical information even if the early estimates are wrong. Anyone who has been through this before took one look at the headlines on Monday that 155,000 people were out of power and knew this wouldn’t be sorted out until the end of the week.

More importantly, we shouldn’t be distracted from continuing the important efforts to remove the perverse incentives that pump subsidies through National Grid’s wires -- with National Grid acting like the Ukrainians with Russian Gas and siphoning off whatever they can for their own coffers. We shouldn’t pull these subsidies because of the storm response, we should do it because it is the right thing to do.

And, if you think National Grid bills are bad now, wait until the state demands action on downed lines within some specified period up to some state-mandated performance standard; and then Grid dutifully trots off to the PUC and asks for sharply increased rates to accomplish that. Or we can all look in the mirror and realize the person staring back at us is the one upon whom we should depend to get through these outages.

78

Where there are folks with special needs who don’t have the capabilities to prepare themselves as well for such events, that is why we live in neighborhoods. Back in the blizzard of ’78 we all carted cans of fuel oil up blocked streets to our elderly neighbors who were running out. Is it really such an imposition that a troublesome weather event happens every 5 years or so? Or have we really just seen the evidence that because it only happens every 5 years, most of us aren’t well prepared.

 

Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting over regulation and perverse incentives in tax policy. 

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