December 2nd, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Ameren-ron. Again.

Ameren says that the other day's winter weather was the worst storm they've ever seen. Hmm. That sounds familiar. Where have we heard that before? Oh, I remember! This is the fourth time they've said it. And I, for one, am getting sick of it.

Yes, it makes sense that the Columbia, Missouri area has widespread power outages. Sixteen inches of snow is a lot. But let's take a look at the fact that half of Ameren's outages are right here in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Did we get the "worst storm ever" here in St. Louis? Please. What we got wasn't even an extraordinary storm. Sure, if you only look back two years it may seem like one. We had two milder than usual winters in a row, and they're clearly hoping that St. Louisans can't remember any farther back than that. But what we got here in St. Louis is 1"-4" of snow over 1/4" to 1/2" of ice. And yet we still ended up living in a place, just like Iraq, where American companies make excuses to explain why they can't deliver reliable electrical power, and where the real reason is because the money that's supposed to be paying for that reliable electrical power is being diverted to corrupt uses. Welcome, once again, to Baghdad on the Mississippi.

Now, you put 4" of snow on top of a 1/2" of ice and yes, some tree branches are going to come down. Worse, because St. Louisans love their fast-growing trees, you're going to lose some whole silver maples. So yes, it makes sense that there are power lines down to some individual houses and businesses, and having to re-string those lines is a routine annual part of winter in St. Louis. But the Friday morning coverage also reported that Ameren lost fifteen substations, almost entirely in north county. Tree limbs don't fall on substations. They build them in the middle of oases of concrete and asphalt. For tree limbs to have fallen on those substations would have taken a tornado. Nor would that have even have wiped out a well maintained substation, because they're embedded in wire frame cages specifically to keep things from blowing or falling onto the exposed components.

No, there is only one way for them to have lost 200,000 customers at once, just in north county, from a few hundred or even a few thousand individual-house power lines going down. Not coincidentally, it's the same way that the same disaster happened this summer, and the Public Utilities Commission still doesn't get it. And that is if the parts of the system that are designed to contain and localize and minimize outages, to keep them from spreading, also fails. See, here's the deal: electricity will always try to find a way, some way, to get from the place that's making power to the people who are trying to use it. So if a main distribution line gets knocked down, electricity by its very nature tries to travel around the outage through other lines that didn't get knocked down. But if you lose a few lines at once, so much electricity can try to pass through so few lines that if it were allowed to do so, the lines would melt. What prevents that is the same thing that prevents you from plugging too many things into one power circuit in your home, melting those lines: circuit breakers. They're bigger than the ones in your basement, of course, because the ones in your basement don't have to support 69,600 volts at thousands or tens of thousands of amperes. And they break down more often than the ones in your basement, because more things get changed on or fail in parts of a city-wide grid than in your little house. (At least, I hope so.) So they do have to be maintained.

Compare the map of Ameren's system outages to the amount of new construction that has happened in those areas. In the parts of the metro area that have seen the least new business construction and new subdivision creation, the power went out. And during the summer outage, we heard on the radio from an Ameren inside whistle-blower who called KMOX exactly why this is: Ameren cut their routine maintenance by a third. New areas get new breakers, because they have to. Old breakers just slowly age in place forever until they're needed, and then a third of them fail.

Oh, there's an unprecedented crisis here, alright, but it's not the one that Ameren is telling us about. The crisis is that by hoarding the cash we're paying them that's supposed to be paying for maintenance on the power grid, they can save up enough money to buy out any utility "foolish" enough to actually maintain their power grid. They can play this game for a long time, punishing utilities that take their mission to provide reliable electric service seriously. And then, to make things better for them and worse for the rest of us, by ensuring that any minor system outage escalates into a state-wide disaster, they can apply for state and federal disaster relief funds, and qualify for extra disaster-related tax credits, to pay for the maintenance that they should have already done and that they were already paid to do but didn't. For them, it's a sweet deal. For codeb6, mari_who, stl_kitten, thesigother, kukla_tko42, and many tens of thousands of other Ameren customers, it's our fourth identical recurring disaster in three years.