Why We Need More Power Lines


Most people outside of the electric utility industry tend to think power lines are ugly. This becomes especially true in residential neighborhoods where other utilities are strung up on these ubiquitous wooden power poles, such as communications cable & fiber lines. People think these poles and wires ruin the aesthetic view of their neighborhood and scenic byways. People are becoming increasingly aware of the risks of overhead power lines: they can cause fires when trees or branches knock them out of place and these lines are vulnerable to damage (with resulting power outages) from high winds during storms, ice storms, vehicular accidents, and even vandalism or terrorism. They are not wrong!

According to clean energy industrialist Troy Helming, founder of several companies in the clean energy infrastructure space that have created more than $30 Billion of economic impact, our nation has creaky infrastructure that is not only crumbling and failing, but our chronic underinvestment in infrastructure has also put our society at risk of collapsing.

This is because power lines and the equipment placed on the poles holding them up are also quite vulnerable to solar storms (a CME, or coronal mass ejection – a more common occurrence than most people realize) and EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) strikes from enemies with nefarious intent.

An EMP strike could be as simple as a nuclear detonation high up in the atmosphere above the center of the country. The radiation fallout danger would be minimal, but the resulting EMP from any nuclear blast would fry every semiconductor within line of sight of the blast. Such a bomb could be delivered by a rocket, of course, but also by a sufficiently well-made hot air balloon that could get high enough in the atmosphere (higher than Mt. Everest, way up high).

An EMP or CME event would be devastating to North America: within 24 hours of such an event, up to 5% of the population would perish by many estimates. That figure would grow to 20% within a week and 50% within 1-3 months depending on the severity and scope of the damage to the electrical grid.

The short-term loss of life would be due to the resulting power outage across the grid and within vehicles and aircraft. As most above-ground electrical equipment would be fried, airplanes would fall out of the sky and nearly all vehicles made after the 1970s would shut off, causing drivers to lose control, leading to massive traffic accidents. This alone would kill hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.

The grid outage would cause additional deaths every day, increasing rapidly due to people having no heat or air conditioning in their homes, no running water or wastewater removal, limited medical & protective (police) safety services due to the massive needs of society with limited resources, no gas or fuel station pumping ability, etc. For those hospitals and clinics fortunate enough to have backup generators, within days their fuel will run out so there would be no power for medical treatments, maintaining life support, keeping medicines refrigerated, and even relatively simple procedures like kidney dialysis would no longer be possible.

The average person has perhaps 3 days of food in their pantry. Once that runs out, people will get desperate to feed their family and themselves. Stores would have been raided within the first couple of days, so gangs would form out of necessity and violence would inevitably proliferate. One can imagine that after a week, the loss of life would be staggering: up to 30% of the population would perish in the first couple of weeks. In just 3 months, that figure grows to 50% or more.

Within 6-12 months of an EMP, 90% of our population would be dead.

How is this possible?! This is the obvious question. Much of the equipment that runs our electrical grid, including the large transformers at the 40,000+ electrical substations across America, is custom-built and takes up to 18 months to manufacture each transformer. They are also made overseas. Even with a massive effort to expedite manufacturing and installation of new transformers, imagine the challenge with little to no fuel for trucks & service vehicles, workers trying to protect & feed their families, and little to no communications to coordinate the logistics needed for such an effort.

Remember, with no electric power there is no cell phone service, no Internet, no fuel, no water, no sewer or wastewater, no resupply of food or medicines, no medical treatment available, no fire fighters, no police, and severely hamstrung FEMA and federal agencies and crippled army and national guard units, all of which would be suffering from mass desertion of any in their ranks that have families to care for and protect. As much as any government want to help their people, they simply would be unable to do much other than set up temporary shelters and distribute the limited food and supplies they have in storage.

This is not a pretty picture, I know. It’s a scenario occasionally discussed as one of the single biggest risks to America. But our state and federal governments are struggling to prepare for this. However, there are simply not enough resources to sustain our population in such a scenario. And the government is not equipped to take the big steps necessary to prevent this disaster due to our bitterly divided politics.

That leaves us with one choice: prevention.

The solution is simple, but not easy: underground our power lines and related electrical infrastructure so that it’s shielded from threats such as an EMP, CME, storms and other risks. It sounds simple, and it is. But it’s definitely not easy: according to Scientific American, the U.S. electrical is the largest interconnected machine on Earth: 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines, linking thousands of generating plants to factories, homes and businesses.

Think about it: how long would it take to replace 40,000 transformers with underground versions, let alone bury 5.7 million miles (~10 million km) of power lines? It’s a massive undertaking. Europe has a large percentage of underground power lines, because they made it a policy long ago to spend the extra time and money to do so. That helps explain why their electrical grid is so much more reliable than ours – they don’t suffer from incessant storm-related power outages.

We cannot delay this, however. Our future as a nation depends on eliminating this imminent threat. We need to start with the most vulnerable substations and power lines and expand from there. It will take years, perhaps a decade or more, depending on how serious we are about fixing this infrastructure problem. In America, our investment in infrastructure has been woefully inadequate. The last major infrastructure project tackled by our nation was in 1956 – half a century ago! – when Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Shame on us for letting our water pipelines, electrical grid, sewer lines, roads and bridges get into such a sorry, crumbling, creaky state of barely doing the job.

There is good news here to be hopeful about.

By commencing an effort to put power lines underground, we can also solve another problem at the same time: lowering energy costs substantially by building new underground lines from the sunniest & windiest areas of our continent to our cities. There is enough low-cost renewable solar and wind energy potential (in the southwest and south, and in the Midwest and offshore, respectively) to power our nation 100x over with clean energy. But we cannot develop those resources due to a chronic lack of sufficient transmission capacity from those areas to our coastal cities and manufacturing hubs.

The U.S. electrical grid was never designed, says Helming. It evolved – over time – as a patchwork of various utility systems that decided to connect their poles and wires to each other when it suited them. As a result, we have three discreet and separate electrical grids in North America (yes, the grid extends south to Mexico and north to Canada):

1. The Western Interconnection,

2. The Eastern Interconnection, and

3. Texas (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT).

Shockingly, these 3 grids cannot transfer power (other than a minimal amount, far less than 1% of our generation capacity) between each other. So, we essentially have three “islands” of independent power.

We must interconnect our nation, to share power from coast to coast! This would have prevented the grid outages in Texas earlier this year, as well as the recent rolling power brownouts in California. This has never been done before. We like to think of ourselves as a leader in the world, but we’re not when it comes to many things…including the most basic form of energy: electricity. We are akin to a 2nd or 3rd world nation with respect to how poorly our grid condition rates compared to the rest of the world.

A “Supergrid” would solve this problem, lower energy costs substantially by unlocking massive amounts of new super low-cost and zero-fuel-cost solar and wind energy and increase our economic competitiveness. Meanwhile, such an infrastructure effort would create millions of good-paying new jobs for a decade or more. Of course, all of it must be underground to prevent the risks discussed earlier.

Finally, a powerful tool to use to increase our grid reliability and lower costs is to increase the ability to move solar & wind energy across time zones, says Helming. This means sending the lowest cost “excess” solar energy from western states to the Midwest to meet the evening peak in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Detroit, for example. Or further east to the east coast metropolises. Since the peak in these Midwestern and Eastern cities is 2-3 hours later than on the west coast, it would be ideal to send solar energy east from around noon to 3 pm in the Pacific Time Zone. Similarly, as wind energy is ramping up in the Midwest around 8-10 pm, that energy could be sent west to power Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, and San Diego.

While this time-zone-shifting concept sounds like a great idea, it is quite difficult if not impossible. Sending energy from one regional grid to another is simply not possible today. But with a new, underground Supergrid – or an EarthGrid – such efficient use of clean, abundant, renewable energy suddenly becomes possible. Let’s spread this message and push for such an effort to improve our nation, our health, and our peace of mind. 

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Why We Need More Power Lines

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Published on June 04, 2021

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