Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Power Outages

The power goes out not infrequently here, thanks to a combination of decaying infrastructure, poor weather conditions, falling tree limbs, and the occasional transformer exploding as a result of overload, usually because someone’s growing in the neighbourhood. It’s a fact of life; I keep candles and matches in every room in case the lights happen to snap off while I’m in it, I make sure I have water around to flush the toilet and do dishes, and I’m thankful that I have a gas stove I can light by hand now, instead of an electric one that’s useless when the power goes out. If we had a gravity-fed water tank, I’d even have running water in power outages, which would be ace.

Frequent power outages are a fact of life in rural areas, although in our corner of the world they’ve gotten better than they were in the 1990s, when a series of severe storms collided with poor maintenance on PG&E’s part to cause outages that lasted for days and weeks in some places. In one memorable El Nino year, we didn’t have power in Caspar for well over a week, and outlying communities lost their power for even longer.

Electricity is not necessarily something you take for granted when you’re aware it can go out seemingly on a whim, and it may take a while to restore. Utilities prioritise urban areas when it comes to infrastructure and service restoration because of the correspondingly larger amount of people and critical services; if the choice when it comes to allocating resources is between an urban area with a major trauma centre and an outlying rural community, obviously the urban area is going to come first. This kind of utilitarian allocation is necessary in the wake of severe storms and extremely abnormal conditions like heat waves because utilities may not have the resources they need to handle everything at once, even with backup from other companies in the case of truly unusual events like major hurricanes or earthquakes.

People in urban areas seem very unaccustomed to power outages and uncomfortable with them, even when they only last for short periods of time. Understandably so; utilities work hard to protect them from outages in the first place, and to respond quickly when there is a service interruption. But it does create a sort of divide when it comes to talking about utility infrastructure, grid, electrical service, and managing power outages, because urban and rural people have a fundamentally different understanding of what an outage is and how it works.

The electrical grid in the United States is straining to keep up with demand, and is starting to show signs of cracking, especially during temperature extremes, which is exactly when people need power the most. High heating and cooling demands can overload the grid, forcing planned shutdowns, rolling blackouts, and other measures to control the demand for power, ensuring that the supply is able to meet it. Notably, rural areas are often hit hard with rolling blackouts and similar measures because correspondingly fewer people are affected, and thus the utility can budget power while keeping the customer impact to a minimum.

While many people in rural areas are used to frequent outages and in some cases prolonged ones, it doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t need power. Just as in urban communities, hospitals, schools, and other facilities rely on electricity to operate, and unlike our urban counterparts, we don’t have easily accessible alternatives. If our local emergency room goes down, the closest option is over an hour away; and if the ER is closed because the power and the hospital’s backup generators have both failed, chances are high that extreme weather conditions could prevent us from reaching another regional hospital.

Likewise, disabled people live in rural areas, and rely on equipment like ventilators, lifts, and similar supplies to stay alive and manage tasks of daily living. While power cuts are supposed to leave people with critical health needs unaffected, that only applies to planned and scheduled cuts; when the power goes out because of factors beyond the utility’s control, those customers are in the dark along with everyone else. And in rural areas, there are a lot of infrastructure factors going unaddressed; with so many more miles of line, that equals so many more chances for damage to utility poles and lines, problems caused by landslides and falling trees, and simply vandalism.

Covering the needs of rural communities requires more resources, one reason why services like broadband and even electricity itself have been slow to expand into rural areas. It’s expensive to place poles and get the infrastructure established, and only providing services to a handful of homes may not be worth it. Once those systems are in place, they’re also costly and time-consuming to maintain. Our fleet of PG&E trucks is constantly moving up and down the coast to deal with endless problems along miles and miles of line, and many of the outages they handle affect only a few homes, less than 100 customers. Yet, they can require similar resources as outages on, say, an urban block with 150 residential units.

This disparity between number of consumers and the kind of energy needed to supply them really comes into play with discussions about resource allocation for grants, maintenance, renovation, and service improvements. Rural communities need these things every bit as much as urban ones do, but we’re less likely to get them because of the disproportionate cost to benefit ratio. And thus, there is a small tinge of bitterness when you’ve been sitting in the dark for the fourth, or fifth, or sixth day, and you hear about people in an urban community complaining about how an outage of a few hours totally disrupted their lives. It probably did, but from the perspective of people experiencing prolonged outages and service interruptions, it’s frustrating to be reminded that your experiences seem to matter less.

And when we’re told that we don’t need resources to repair, modernise, and refurbish our aging rural infrastructure, we tend to get a bit prickly, because the evidence of dire need is right in front of our eyes.