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Juliette kayyem

Pulling the plug on nation’s security

A downed tree took out power lines last week in Washington, D.C.

getty images

A downed tree took out power lines last week in Washington, D.C.

WELCOME BACK, D.C., it’s good to hear from you. By now, hopefully, you and your neighbors in the mid-Atlantic area are back online after last month’s violent storms left about 3 million people in the dark and, with downed power lines and fallen trees, delayed the restoration of power. Since then, to catch you up, Tom Cruise’s Oprah couch-jumping testament to love was put in a new light when Katie Holmes filed for divorce; CNN’s Anderson Cooper came out of the closet to a worldwide yawn; and the nation celebrated its independence from an unresponsive and monopolistic source of power (and it wasn’t the electric utilities).

The ongoing power outages are an epic failure, however, not only for those who suffer in the heat but for the rest of the nation and the world looking on, aghast. That our capital is in the dark is akin to riots in London or debilitating strikes in Paris. It says something about a nation whose projection of strength is an essential part of its security strategy. There is little national power with no power in the nation’s capital.

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There are a lot of excuses coming from Pepco and Old Dominion Power, the local utilities that distribute electricity to the Washington area. Deregulation in the industry was supposed to provide customers with more responsive service and lower prices. It has instead resulted in less oversight, allowing for degradation in equipment in the transmission and distribution networks, and fewer employees available to respond.

The problem is the persistent dependence on above-ground lines, which are easily downed by winds or tree branches that fall during a storm. The utilities have consistently fought regulations to require burying power lines, which occurs in most of the world, claiming that in D.C. alone, the pricetag would be close to $6 billion.

It doesn’t take an expert in risk management to conclude that our future involves climate change leading to increased storm activity. The utilities try to cut and clear dangerous trees and limbs, sometimes to the chagrin of neighbors, but it’s a Sisyphean project. The culprit is not trees; it is the wires in the trees.

There are two numbers worth forcing out of the utilities in the inevitable oversight hearings that will occur. First, what is the pricetag, and level of disruption, for burying major power lines as compared to the secondary and tertiary lines that serve smaller communities? The only number out there involves submerging the entire system. But think of a grid as a human blood system: could we more easily protect major arteries and let the smaller capillaries remain exposed, ensuring greater resiliency for the vast majority of customers?

Second, what is the pricetag, and impact on customer bills, of modernization investments now as compared to the cost of repairs from the inevitable extreme weather that will regularly bring down the system? It no longer suffices to claim shock and surprise, as Pepco did when describing the most recent storm, about climate systems that are bound to cause strain on our infrastructure. Whether the fix is burying lines, creating more redundancies (are there any?) so that there are fewer single points of failure, or further upgrading of systems, the solution is far easier than discovering the Higgs boson particle.

Worst of all, however, is what the power outage says about our nation’s priorities when it comes to our own security. We tend to focus on threats rather than vulnerabilities. A nuclear Iran or a cyber-threatening China are much more sexy topics than aging infrastructure. We highlight the new-new thing without focusing on minimizing damage.

Cyber security is a perfect example. By 2017 the threat of cyber attacks — real, but also prone to exaggeration — will create a $120 billion security market.

But the consequences of what we fear from a cyber enemy — the downing of public and private facilities, impacts on banking, finance, and transportation, and a massive disruption to the public — are exactly what has happened already, because we haven’t required more from the good old-fashioned power companies.

There is something so bitterly sad that the locale of this most recent outage is the District of Columbia, the center of the free world. Our infrastructure is the greatest security investment we can now make.

It is difficult to project power if the lights won’t go on.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem
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