Monday October 1, 2012

RICHMOND

We're getting less oxygen from our sugar maples this year. It's not the drought or whatever category of dryness we officially had. It's not an increase in traffic, although the 50 relatives who showed up last weekend made a bit of a difference in the carbon dioxide level. The problem is the annual disfigurement of trees, done in the name of whacking off any branches that come within two to three feet of the top electric wire.

Sugar maples by nature are majestically plump, with their twin convex sides. When the tree trimmers finish, they are concave on the street side. It isn't pretty. It may well be practical, of course. The expert tree people point to some brown leaves high up in the trees and say the top wire is hot and cannot be near anything that might burn, it could even send a shock down the tree to a person leaning on it. That made me wonder why such a hazardous wire runs around the neighborhood naked. If human safety be a priority, perhaps that wire should have an insulating cover of some sort.

But, scare tactics aside, the tree people come almost every year, zinging their saws and loading mountains of maple branches into their chipper. They don't even ask if we'd like some chips, although one year a very pleasant worker lopped off an extra branch so it would stop hitting me in the head when mowing the lawn.


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All this trivia leads to what has to be a basic truth about transportation of electricity from the grids to our stove, refrigerator, lights, computer, baseboards, etc. The wires should be buried.

Anyone who lives in Becket, where ice a few years ago left the population powerless for days, or Stonington, Conn., where our daughter and family went forever without power after Irene plowed through, would be happy to see wires go underground.

But every time the long outages bring outrage, the utility companies protest that it's too expensive. And then they spend millions and millions to bring in repair crews from all over the country, paying overtime. In between, they hire tree-trimming contractors who are very expert at their jobs and, obviously, also very expensive.

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The utilities have even argued that it's terribly costly to repair things underground when something goes wrong. Those outages, however, are much rarer, and in major cities around the country, wiring is underground, along with water and sewer pipes and communication lines. Wires do not interfere with your view of Manhattan's skyline, for instance.

And, as protestors have pointed out, power outages are costly to a lot of people. Hurricane Irene and other violent storms sent thousands of pounds of food from warmed-up home freezers into the garbage. Hundreds of people shelled out for home generators because they never wanted to face the outage problem again. Businesses shut down, a costly business in this economy we keep hearing about.

Meanwhile, the utilities continue to say the obvious: "We cannot control the weather." No one expects anyone to control the weather, but ordinary people spend lots of time planning around it, and in the aftermath of some recent storms, utilities have been criticized for not having their emergency procedures in place quickly enough.

An opinion piece in USA Today, coming a few days after a major storm in the mid-Atlantic region this year, pointed out that a number of countries bury all their power lines to homes and businesses, Germany being one. And that nation's grid apparently operates very reliably.

No one expects all power lines to get buried tomorrow. But communities that insist all lines be buried in new developments are forcing some progress. Even better would be nationwide programs to start burying key lines, adding more every year until the job is done.

We update highways, airports, TV reception, stoves, even toilets. Why not wires?

Ruth Bass is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.