Amidst record-high temperatures and a very anti-climactic 4th of July, power outages have left millions without air-conditioning and even water in rural areas where households rely on electric pumps. At least 52 people have died from heat and three million people are still without power.
No it's not Yemen, where power outages in the capital Sana'a have sparked a new round of protests. It's the United States of America, where corruption converges with a moribund electricity distribution system to produce increasingly frequent blackouts across the Midwest and East Coast.
A thunderstorm that struck the East Coast early last week left millions without electricity and power companies took days to restore power to about half of their customers. Four days after the storm, power was restored to 67% in the Northern Virginia suburbs and 61% in Baltimore, but Montgomery County, Maryland and parts of Washington, D.C. only managed to restore 43%, leaving over a million without electricity as temperatures soared above 100 degrees.
In the Midwest, there was less chance of blaming storms. In Michigan, for instance, an increasingly woebegone state, power outages are frequent. In counties near the capital, Lansing, hundreds of homes were without power for the 4th of July. Power was restored that evening, but lost again the following day. And this has been going on for some time.
Everyone would like to know why. The answer is simple, and three-fold: An outdated electricity distribution system, corruption and mismanagement.
Americans are now being told that keeping utility bills down means keeping maintenance of the country's dismal electricity distribution system to a bare minimum. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the entire system could collapse by 2020 without an immediate investment of $673 billion. Furthermore, experts say that brownouts and blackouts will end up costing more in the end than re-hauling the entire system.
The system cannot handle increasing demand, especially when the entire country is turning on the AC. Last week's brownouts and blackouts will become status quo.
In fact, as NPR quipped, "the basic principles of power delivery haven't changed much since Thomas Edison flipped on the first commercial power grid in lower Manhattan on Sept. 4, 1882."
According to the ASCE's engineers, more than 60% of the country's electricity transmission lines and power transformers are at least 25 years old, while 60% of the circuit breakers are more than three decades old.
This is to prepare Americans for higher utility bills in the future. But it also ignores the corruption and mismanagement that has allowed privately owned power companies to profit from bare-minimum maintenance and deregulation. There is no investment in infrastructure, no guarantees of service, and continually worsening standards of safety and maintenance.
It is an outmoded system of distribution compared to Europe's for instance, where power lines are buried underground. While this makes them more difficult to reach and harder to fix, they are also much less at the mercy of Mother Nature.
With that in mind, all eyes are on the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco), the utility company that provides power to Montgomery County, Maryland and parts of Washington, D.C. and which was rated last year by Business Insider as "the most hated company in America". Certainly, these past days and weeks have done nothing to help that rating.
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