Glimpses of Our Dystopian Neo-Liberal Future: Electrical Power in Virginia

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which knocked out power to parts of Virginia for several days, relatives, having lost their power, decided to get a natural gas-powered generator (their house has a gas line). Sadly, it has become a necessity: they now lose their power for extended periods (at least a day) several times per year. At least once per year, they have had to seek shelter elsewhere. In a 21st-century developed country, this is already outrageous, but here’s the kicker: as the crow flies, they live less than seven miles from the White House. That’s right. Drive a half-hour (not during rush hour though) from the supposed Capital of the Free World, and the power goes out anytime there are sustained winds above 35 – 40 miles per hour.

This is not the boonies. Many government officials and workers live in this area. These outages actually affect the ability of the federal government to function. This is a national embarrassment and is a perfect storm (pun intended) of neo-liberalism and decaying infrastructure.

This is something new: it wasn’t like this when I lived in the area twenty years ago. So why does this happen so often? First, while my relatives live in a neighborhood with underground wires, the wires to the neighborhood are above ground. The wires weren’t installed below ground because it was too expensive. Rather than pay upfront, skimp on the initial expense and pay it out later. That’s not entirely accurate: the consumers, not developers or shareholders, pay it out later. This is a common modus operandi for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Anyone who has been to Virginia knows there are a lot of trees* and those trees grow really quickly. Constant tree maintenance is required (i.e., trimming trees back). Yet the local electrical utility has drastically cut the maintenance budgets. Why? Because the local utility used to be a very small company that decided to become a Great Big Company. Did it deliver energy at a better rate and build its business that way? Of course not–this is 21st century America! Instead, it borrowed a ridiculous amount of money (‘leveraged up’) which it now has to pay back. These payments require cost savings, so guess what gets cut? (another pun, I know). Maintenance. And the state regulators did and continue to do nothing to stop this, thanks to an ideology that posits business knows best (there very well could be political corruption involved too). Though I’m sure Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will get right on this issue, just after he has finished harassing climatologists and getting all up in women’s vaginas.

So, thanks to the failure of basic governance and infrastructure that occurred less than ten miles from the nation’s capital, my relatives have been forced to purchase a generator that hooks into the gas line. When they were talking to the installation inspector, he told them that he was working six days a week, and that there was a several month backlog. Mind you, this installation is expensive–my relatives are fortunate enough to be able to afford this. When the generator switches on, it’s expensive to run (and, of course, there will be no reimbursement from the electric company. You silly billy, you!). But not having a generator isn’t an option. When the power dies on a 100 degree day (and for several days), staying in the house can be deadly. And the post-hurricane Sandy 43 degree weather wasn’t exactly fun either.

This is our future: if you’re able to afford it, you purchase expensive private infrastructure workarounds due to the failure of governance. If you can’t, you’re screwed. It is the perfect nexus of regulatory failure, regulatory capture, and high finance.

While there is a lot of ruin in nation, we are beginning to get stretched rather thin. And I have no idea how to fix this, as our political betters appear far more interested in enriching their sponsors balancing long-term budgets based on dubious assumptions, rather than dealing with real problems in the here and now.

*A colleague from Europe who had never been to the South, upon driving down the GW Parkway through Virginia from the airport (to get to NIH) was visibly overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of trees and foliage. There are a lot of trees.

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8 Responses to Glimpses of Our Dystopian Neo-Liberal Future: Electrical Power in Virginia

  1. Same thing with my summer home in Chelmsford, MA. Had to buy a 20KW gas generator because the power went out so often in the last few years. That town is next to the city of Lowell in a county of 2.5 million people. It is disgraceful. I now escape winters in Florida.

  2. joemac53 says:

    When they try to trim the trees in my area the literal “tree huggers” are up in arms. If they try to kill them chemically another crowd is up in arms. I am partial to regular trimming, with little piles left at the side of the road for those with woodstoves. I got quite a haul after Sandy (hee-hee).

  3. John of Indiana says:

    In my little north-central Indiana town, I don’t just have Aladdin Mantle Lamps and kerosene because I like the “mood”, I have them for light … A small Genny to run the fridge and a couple of fans. We’ve had power outages of every kind from 4-hour outages because of a car wreck to a 3-day outage because of a tornado. The ice storm of ’91 took it out for 10 days.
    The 18-hour outage from a SQUIRREL getting into something he shouldn’t have (ZAPPPPPPPP! FRY!!!) was a nice touch.
    It’s easy to post record profits for your shareholders when you pay spit on infrastructure maintenance…

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  8. Rich S. says:

    Over Christmas, my wife and I were home in NJ visiting family. Over a holiday dinner our conversation turned to the aftermath of Sandy and how it affected our relatives in NJ. It was mentioned that after Sandy, there were reports that out-of-state utility crews sent to NJ to help restore power could not work on the equipment because it was so old and outdated and they had never seen it before. The response my cousin gave was that PSE&G and their owners don’t do anything to update the power distribution system “because there’s no money in it.” My cousin is a civil engineer who works for a company that does contract work for the state government. He is also very conservative. The irony in this obvious failure of the free market to keep the power distribution system up-to-date was apparently lost on him.

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