Our evolving lives, power supply

In the outfall of the Texas electrical power outage, an article (Feb. 17) updates the status of New York state’s power grid.

I have lived at least four years in each of four states. I experienced at least one power outage lasting a day or more in each state except Michigan. The reasons have to do with geology, topography, climate, weather events, political history, and culture.

Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of many electrical devices (light bulb, generator, motor, and phonograph), was aware of this as his life ranged from Michigan to New York City with many summers spent at Chautauqua Institution.

Geology: a) Michigan has coal fields near population centers. Short rail lines from coal fields to coal-fired power plants insure stability and low cost of energy source. Uniquely in my experience, my Michigan residence had electrical baseboard heating, electrical water heating, and an electrical oven as well as electrical lighting. Had a power failure occurred in winter, I would have had to take refuge in another building. Most of my residences (in whatever state where I was) have had gas ranges and gas heating. b) Puerto Rico has earthquakes which have disrupted power plants and lines. c) California has geothermal power generation.

Topography: New York and Puerto Rico have mountains that favor hydroelectric power.

Climate: Puerto Rico’s year-round warmth vitiates the need for household heating. Florida has less need for household heating than Michigan and New York.

Weather events: Of the four states, a) Michigan alone is exempt from hurricanes — but not tornadoes; b) Puerto Rico alone is exempt from snowfall or freezing concerns. c) California droughts result in devastating forest fires, sometimes ignited by fallen power lines.

Political history: New York, long (but not now) the most populous of U.S. states, has a body of law that responds to experienced industrial accidents. These laws require expensive devices to prevent accidents.

Culture: Off-grid Amish communities do not use electricity aside from spark plugs for gasoline-powered water pumps. These communities would not even notice an electrical power outage.

In 2016, petroleum engineer Lee Hyson campaigned for state senate in the district including Chautauqua County. At that time, he emphasized the importance of the redesign of the New York State power grid, noting that the addition of renewable energy sources (solar and wind) could add large amounts of electrical energy in a way that could unbalance the grid.

As I look about my residence today, I see artifacts that I have inherited from ancestors since the early 19th century. Their presence reminds me of the mutability of technology over the centuries and speaks of further change in the future.

Michael C. Barris, Ph.D., is a Fredonia resident.


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