Want to keep AC on? Bury power lines
updated 11:31 AM EDT, Mon July 2, 2012
Workers repair power lines in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Sunday. David Frum says buried power lines would help.
- David Frum: Millions on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard lost power in bad weather this week
- He says this happens regularly in U.S., but not in Germany, where power lines are buried
- Some say it would be too costly to bury power lines; he says cost creates benefits
- Frum: Stimulus projects haven't done much; here's a project that would benefit many, create jobs
Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."
(CNN) -- Congratulations: If you're reading this, you have electricity. Unfortunately, more than 3 million Americans this weekend couldn't join you. The sweltering heat wave that roasted the eastern United States was accompanied by terrible storms that have knocked out power lines up and down the seaboard.
While you enjoy your air conditioning, you might want to take a minute to consider: Why do Americans tolerate such outages?
Outages are not inevitable. The German power grid has outages at an average rate of 21 minutes per year.
Millions still without power amid record heat wave
The winds may howl. The trees may fall. But in Germany, the lights stay on.
There's no Teutonic engineering magic to this impressive record. It's achieved by a very simple decision: Germany buries almost all of its low-voltage and medium-voltage power lines, the lines that serve individual homes and apartments. Americans could do the same. They have chosen not to.
The choice has been made for reasons of cost. The industry rule of thumb is that it costs about 10 times as much to bury wire as to string wire overhead: up to $1 million per mile, industry representatives claim. Since American cities are much less dense than European ones, there would be a lot more wire to string to serve a U.S. population than a European one.
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But now reflect:
1. There's reason to think that industry estimates of the cost of burying wires are inflated. While the U.S. industry guesstimates costs, a large-scale study of the problem conducted recently in the United Kingdom estimated the cost premium at 4.5 to 5.5 times the cost of overhead wire, not 10.
2. U.S. cost figures are a moving target. American cities are becoming denser as the baby boomers age and opt for central-city living, as I discussed in a previous column. Denser cities require fewer miles of wire to serve their populations.
3. Costs can only be understood in relation to benefits. As the climate warms, storms and power outages are becoming more common. And as the population ages, power failures become more dangerous. In France, where air conditioning is uncommon, a 2003 heat wave left 10,000 people dead, almost all of them elderly. If burying power lines prevented power outages during the hotter summers ahead, the decision could save many lives.
Photos: Extreme heat strikes U.S.
4. As you may have heard, we're suffering very severe unemployment just at present. Joblessness is acute among less educated workers, many of whom used to work in the now severely depressed construction industry. Burying power lines is a project that could put many hundreds of thousands of the unemployed to work at tasks that make use of their skills and experience.
Meanwhile, the federal government is able to borrow vast sums of money at the lowest interest rates since the Great Depression. The Obama stimulus has to date failed to produce many projects of lasting benefit to the country. But here's one that our children and grandchildren would appreciate -- and that might save our parents' lives.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.
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