Flash of insight: Get used to no power
Silent flashes lit up the sky in fast succession, like paparazzi, for a good two minutes. The night was dark, and our power had clicked off about a half hour earlier. I stood at our bedroom window, fascinated by this mysterious pulse. Soon, the flashing stopped, and it was time to get some sleep.
But what was that? I’ve heard of “thunder snow,” where there’s thunder and lightning during a snowstorm. Maybe that was it. I live out in rural Albemarle, but a friend in Charlottesville observed the same phenomenon around the same time. The flashes were nowhere near as bright as lightning, though. And I didn’t hear a thing.
The communal wisdom on Facebook declared that what I had witnessed was transformers exploding. Well, I had seen those flashes around 3am when many people reported losing power, so maybe that was it. But I wasn’t convinced.
Today, after weeks of wondering about this March 6 curiosity and finding nothing on the internet to enlighten me, I picked up the phone and got some answers from Dan Genest, a Dominion Power spokesman.
Dan’s best guess was that what I saw was flashing from multiple instances of falling trees making contact with power lines. He said that transformers can, indeed, explode, but it’s rare during a snowstorm, and much more likely during a summer electrical storm.
So, I hadn’t seen transformers exploding: I’d seen power lines shorting out. Lots and lots of power lines, zapped by downed trees, leaving many thousands without electrical service.
(I am at a loss to explain why so many snow-laden trees happened to tip over at nearly the same time. Was it a couple of strong wind gusts? Beats me.)
What happens, Dan said, is a tree leans on a power line, and creates a short circuit. The result is a flash, perhaps magnified by low clouds and falling snow, as current flows out of the line and through the tree to the ground – and someone loses power.
Once the tulips started pushing up through the soil, I thought I could happily suspend my worries about losing power. It’s largely a winter phenomenon, right? But the memory of last summer’s Derecho lingers, with its week-long power outage during a wicked heat wave, and I'm left wondering what challenges the coming months and years have in store for us.
Surely, there’s something to be done to prevent the loss of power in storms. Why don’t they bury all the lines? Why don’t they do a better job of maintaining the right-of-way, and keeping threatening trees away from the power lines?
The good news is that, in new subdivisions, power lines are almost always installed below ground. The bad news is that, according to a 2005 Virginia State Corporation Commission study, the cost of burying the existing (as of 2005) 96,830 miles of Virginia’s electric distribution lines would be $83.3 billion.
That works out to about $27,000 per customer. Not a surcharge I would like to see on my electric bill.
So, forget that.
But what about better maintenance of the right-of-way around the electrical lines? Dominion Power’s right-of-way is 30 feet. That’s 15 feet on either side of the lines. Think about it: If a big tree is 15 feet away and falls toward the line, chances are someone’s going to lose power. Even with a well-maintained right-of-way, trees just beyond the 15-foot line are a constant threat to our power supply.
Well, maybe we’ll get lucky, and have fewer storms. Could happen, right? Not likely, according to a depressing section on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, where they project the ways in which our climate is likely to continue to change over the coming years. Here are a few highlights:
· Heavy precipitation events will likely be more frequent.
· The intensity of Atlantic hurricanes is likely to increase as the ocean warms.
· The strongest cold-season storms are projected to become stronger and more frequent.
My thoughts keep returning to that 3am display of silent fireworks, when many thousands of Albemarle residents were suddenly without heat, light, and running water.
With a long-term forecast that foresees stronger storms to topple trees and zap our power lines, the best we can do is be prepared for self-reliance with alternatives like generators, woodstoves, canned food, and bottled water.
Welcome to the new normal.Read more on: janis jaquith