Sunday, February 01, 2009

Ice Storms and Rural Power

Things are pretty tough right now in rural Northwest Arkansas, and it turns out that what we are experiencing may be in part related to a rural infrastructure issue.

As Rebecca Smith of the Wall Street Journal reported on January 30 in the article, States Set to Examine Maintenance Budgets as Millions Face Cold With No Power, the recent ice storm "knocked out power to more than 1.3 million homes and businesses from Arkansas to Ohio" and the power outages are "likely to increase state inquiries into utilities' maintenance practices.

Here in Arkansas, the storm was the worst recorded ice storm in history; it closed the University of Arkansas for an unprecedented four days, and many (us included) are still without electricity. We may not have power restored for weeks.

A record number - 9700 - power poles went down and the devastation of our beautiful trees is truly astounding. I am not quick to blame the rural utilities that serve us, as we have always had remarkable service. Seeing the power lines snake up and down the rugged, tree-covered Ozark mountains makes one appreciate the difficulty in servicing such an area.

However, reading the Wall Street Journal article it makes me wonder about the fact that it has been a long time since anyone has trimmed the trees along our stretch of the line. As the Journal reports:
The severe weather has cast a spotlight on maintenance at a time when utilities across the U.S. have been responding to higher costs and reduced energy sales by trimming capital spending. The tricky part is cutting spending without degrading companies' ability to maintain service.
* * *
In Ohio, the leading consumer advocate on utility issues renewed a call this week for the state to conduct a broad probe into utility spending plans to make sure tree trimming, pole replacement and equipment upgrades are adequate.
Perhaps this is another example, similar to our delayed bridge repair and rural road repair where efforts to cut costs and lower taxes have consequences that "come home to roost." Let's hope that the stimulus funds targeted for rural American are used wisely.


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