Limit power outages by burying power lines

An editorial from USA Today argues for burying power lines in order to limit the effect of storms:

People served by buried lines have dramatically fewer outages, according to two studies by the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utility companies.The idea is good enough that many American cities put most lines underground years ago, and lines for most new subdivisions are buried. Overall, though, roughly 80% of lines in the USA still hang overhead.

Such “undergrounding” of power lines can be pricey. But the figure opponents commonly cite — 10 times as expensive as stringing lines overhead — is misleading. The actual cost can be half that, or less, depending on local conditions and whether lines are buried when developments are built or when roads are being torn up anyway.

The best idea is to identify the lines most likely to get knocked down and begin by burying those. A study for Pepco, the underperforming Washington-area utility, found that while burying all lines would cost $5.8 billion and add a ridiculous $107 a month to customer bills for 30 years, burying just the most vulnerable lines would cost about one-sixth as much and prevent 65% of outages, a more reasonable tradeoff.

Even with a reduced figure for burying the power lines now, this serves as a reminder that the best time to bury the power lines would have been years ago when the developments were first built. Doing so after the fact costs more money and mars a lot of property while the burying is taking place. Putting the money into burying the lines in the first place saves a lot of hassle down the road (hence, different rules for newer developments).

An added bonus: having fewer overhead lines looks better. Imagine pristine residential or commercial streets without power lines and poles all over the place.

Still lighting fires on railroad tracks to keep the switches working

Here is a brief look at using fire on the Long Island Railroad to keep the switches operational in the cold temperatures:

When the cold hits, isn’t the trains that have trouble. It’s the switches that direct the cars between tracks that freeze, and when a switch fails, it can compromise an entire line. To keep the switches functioning, the Long Island Railroad uses the centuries-old method of burning kerosene or natural gas to keep everything running.

The Long Island Railroad, the busiest commuter rail line in the United States, has dozens of switch heaters throughout its 700-mile system. Most use electric heating elements, other older ones burn natural gas, and the even older “switch pots” burn kerosene. Trackmen work through the nastiest of storms, lighting the heaters and dousing switches with Hexane, which is then ignited to melt the ice.

Yes, there are more civilized methods, like hot air blowers that clear debris, but in an era of self-driving cars and other modern marvels, simply using  fire to melt ice has a quaint retro feel to it.

While the picture is cool, I don’t know if “quaint retro” is the way to describe this. It is the 21st century, right? I’ve seen several stories about the use of fire this winter – including in the Chicago area with the maligned Metra tracks – but no one has mentioned how this is done in other countries. What about Siberia? Are there any technologies that could solve this issue?

Does urbanization in America explain the declining deaths by lightning strike?

Here is an interesting research question: is urbanization responsible for the sharp decline in Americans who die by lightning strike each year?

In the lightning-death literature, one explanation has gained prominence: urbanization. Lightning death rates have declined in step with the rural population, and rural lightning deaths make up a far smaller percent of all lightning deaths. Urban areas afford more protection from lightning. Ergo, urbanization has helped make people safer from lightning. Here’s a graph showing this, neat and clean:

And a competing perspective:

I spoke with Ronald Holle, a meteorologist who studies lightning deaths, and he agreed that modernization played a significant role. “Absolutely,” he said. Better infrastructure in rural areas—not just improvements to homes and buildings, but improvements to farming equipment too has—made rural regions safer today than they were in the past. Urbanization seems to explain some of the decline, but not all of it.

“Rural activities back then were primarily agriculture, and what we call labor-intensive manual agriculture. Back then, my family—my grandfather and his father before that in Indiana—had a team of horses, and it took them all day to do a 20-acre field.” Today, a similar farmer would be inside a fully-enclosed metal-topped vehicle, which offers excellent lightning protection. Agriculture has declined as a percent of total lightning-death-related activities, as the graph below shows, but unfortunately it does not show the per capita lightning-death rate of people engaged in agriculture.

Sounds like more data is needed! I wonder how long it would take to collect the relevant information versus the payoff of the findings…

More broadly, this hints at how human interactions with nature has changed, even in relatively recent times: we are more insulated from the effects of weather and nature. During the recent cold snap in the area, I was reminded of an idea I had a few years ago to explain why so many adults seem to talk about the weather. Could it be related to the fact that the weather is perhaps the most notable thing on a daily basis that is outside of our control? As 21st century humans, we control a lot that is in front of us (or at least we think we do) but can do little about what the conditions will be like outside. We have more choices than ever about how to respond but it prompts responses from everyone, from the poor to the wealthy, the aged to the young.

Some big cities only made possible by air conditioning?

This seems pertinent with the recent heatwave in the Midwest and East Coast: how many of the major cities of the world wouldn’t exist without air conditioning?

It wasn’t until the beginning of World War II that homes in southern U.S. cities began using air conditioning units. By 1955, one in every 22 American homes had air conditioning. In the South, that number was about 1 in 10, according to the historian Raymond Arsenault [PDF]. Since this increase in air conditioning use, many of these Southern cities experienced a population boom.

I took a look at the metro areas in the U.S. with more than 1 million people and found which have historically been the hottest, based on the number of cooling degree days per year — a statistic used to measure how much and how many days the outside temperature in a certain location is above 65 degrees. Using numbers from NOAA, I found that between 1971-2000, six big cities in the South had an average of at least 3,000 cooling degree days. I also compared the 1940 metro population (when available) to the metro population in 2010. From the time just before air conditioning became popular in the South to today, population growth in the region has skyrocketed. This raises the question: would these hot Southern cities be around, at least in their present form, if air conditioning hadn’t been invented?

But, of course, there are bigger, hotter cities across the globe. In fact, seven of the largest metros in the world have an average high temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not surprisingly, all of these cities are found in developing countries. As Michael Sivak, a professor at the University of Michigan notes, only two of the warmest 30 global metros can be found in developed countries. With the middle class growing in warm metros in countries like India, demand for air conditioning is increasing. A recent New York Times article reported that sales of air conditioning units in India and China are growing 20 percent per year and are fast becoming a middle-class status symbol. Last year, 55 percent of new air conditioners were sold in the Asia Pacific region.

Is there some sort of giant control group we could use to figure this out? Over the weekend, I was in a 150 year old church with no air conditioning. It was hot though I think this was primarily because there was no air movement; indeed, when we walked outside afterward, it felt more pleasant as there was a slight breeze. Before air conditioning, people obviously survived in such temperatures (and also survived in the winters without central heating as we know it today).

So this seems to be the real question: could we expect that there would be major changes in population distributions if there was no air conditioning whatsoever? Would Florida really have few people and post-World War II Sunbelt expansion not taken place? The best solution to all of this would be to have people move to more temperate climates where it doesn’t get too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. This generally requires consistent breezes, usually off major bodies of water. Of course, not everyone can live in places like Hawaii which only has a record high temperature of 100 degrees. Did the Mediterranean climate help give rise to empires like Greece and Rome (though it makes it difficult to then explain the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires which must have adapted to desert climates)?

More broadly, we could discuss the influence of ecology on population growth and state building. I remember studying the mysterious decline of the Maya in southeastern Mexico/Guatemala. More recent scholars have suggested some kind of ecological explanation, perhaps a drought, that led to increased contentious competition for dwindling resources.

My, your lawn is lush and green…especially where the dogs were!

Record temperatures in Chicago have meant green lawns ahead of schedule. This is not usually considered a bad thing: the brown or dormant grass of winter has given way to verdant lawns that wouldn’t look out of place in the many lawn commercials one can see at this time of year. However, in walking around, I noticed that these lawns are often punctuated by more lush spots, presumably from the work of dogs. Here is one picture from an adjacent neighborhood:

Some thoughts about this:

1. The typical “perfect lawn” doesn’t include such spots. So if someone has pets and wants a great-looking lawn, how do you balance these two interests? Cut the lawn a lot? I haven’t noticed any products talking about this kind of fertilization.

2. Perhaps this is a bigger problem in townhome/condo/apartment neighborhoods where there are common lawns. To curb their dog, people walk about the neighborhood and use the common areas. Why use spaces close to your home when you can take advantage of other areas? (Additionally: you are paying for those other areas so why not?)

3. Some patterns emerge: I would estimate at least 80% of the spots were within four feet of the sidewalk. This likely says more about the dog owners than the dogs: the owners want to stay on the sidewalk so the dogs have to stay close by. Also, taller objects, signs, mailboxes, trees, etc. tended to have lusher grass around them. Here is another shot that also shows the first pattern:

Does anyone get upset about this desecration of the lawns? If the battle is between dogs and a perfect lawn, it looks like the dogs win at this time of year.

Meteorologists debate whether recent Chicago snowstorm was 3rd or 4th largest on record

Headlines after the recent Chicago blizzard suggested that the storm had the third largest amount of snow in Chicago history. But when this was later changed to the 4th largest storm, an argument erupted among meteorologists about what exactly counted as part of this particular storm:

After a brief drop to No. 4, the Blizzard of 2011 has now been put back in its rightful spot as the No. 3 worst blizzard in Chicago history.

Earlier in the day, the National Weather Service downgraded the Ground Hog Day Blizzard to 20 inches, taking away .2 inches of snow they say fell hours before the actual blizzard hit. At the same time, they decided that the 1979 storm lasted three days, not the two generally cited. That upped the storm’s total to 20.3 from the 18.8 inches generally credited to the storm…

But during a teleconference with meteorologists from Chicago area media outlets, there was such outcry over the weather service’s decision to lower the total snowfall from this year’s blizzard that the decision was reversed.

“You really are getting into hazardous territory,” WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling warned National Weather Service officials during the teleconference. “To downgrade this storm in any way shape or form is highly subjective. You guys are the arbiters of this, but I don’t agree with it.”…

Allsopp emphasized that these storm totals are more for the public’s benefit than for the record books. The official snow records are listed by calendar days.

Even the weather, data we might consider “hard data,” is open to different interpretations. It is interesting that the final decision went the way of the local forecasters. While Skilling is right to suggest that the decision to downgrade the storm was subjective, wasn’t ranking the storm 3rd also subjective?

Perhaps the key is the final statement in the article: this is for the public, not the record books. In the long run, does it make Chicago area residents feel better or more proud to know that the recent storm was the 3rd largest? If we went by the official snowfall by calendar day, this website suggests the record was 18.6 inches on January 2, 1999.

Why we talk so much about the weather

The headline at ChicagoTribune.com: “Blizzard may be ‘life threatening.’” There were similar headlines throughout the day on the front page of Yahoo! (with the latest version of the story here). Yes, there are predictions for a big storm but why do we talk about the weather so much?

My own thoughts: for the average American adult, the weather is perhaps the only constant in our days that we feel we can’t control. With a certain level of income, most Americans can handle day-to-day matters pretty easily: food is easy to obtain, we have generally large and nice shelters, transportation (by car) is available to many, jobs are decent and give us something to do (even with recent higher unemployment figures). Wars are distant and we know that many in the world face much tougher conditions. But we can’t control the weather. A blizzard bearing down on us reminds us that there are some areas in life of which we can only respond. There is a Christian theme in here if we take a moment to ponder it: we are ultimately not in complete control of our lives, this is okay, and perhaps we should remind ourselves of this more often.

(Additionally, the weather is a common, safe topic that can pull people together. It is hard to be offensive or rude when bringing up the weather. Since we all have to deal with it, it can help bring about group solidarity if we have a neutral topic to fall back on.)

Quick Review: Fall

With classes starting today, I thought I would make the argument that Fall (loosely defined here as late August to late November) is the best season of the year. Here are the reasons:

1. School starts. I’ve always enjoyed school. Now as a professor, it feels good to get back into the classroom and see energetic students again. There is always lots to do. The academic calendar has started anew.

2. The weather improves. I’m not a big fan of really hot summer weather and Chicago has been above normal hot this year. I enjoy the cool edge on the breeze. Today’s weather of about 77 degrees with sunny skies was perfect for the first day of school. And I can’t wait for the chillier days when it feels good to sit inside and read but is still pleasant enough outside to not need a heavy coat.

3. The sports world picks up. After a stretch with only baseball on the air, football, basketball, and hockey start. I enjoy watching both the professional and collegiate level and by October, there is quite a variety of action.

4. Special days. Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer (and summer break), my birthday rolls around, and I enjoy looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I know others would disagree with me but I’m planning to enjoy the next few months.