Voices from Russia

Monday, 16 July 2012

US Weather Affects Power and Politics


The thermometer reads 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) and people on the streets race from their cars to air-conditioned buildings. Last week saw record temperatures in DC, followed by violent storms sweeping through Washington from the Midwest to the Atlantic. Four million people lost power, suffering in a triple-digit heat wave. For the USA, a power outage doesn’t mean just a lack of electricity, halted elevators, and romantic candles on the table. Firstly, this means no A/C, which is vital in summer in most states from Louisiana to New York, from DC to Arizona, when daily temperatures hover above 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) for weeks on end, recalling Turkmenistan, Bahrain, and Malaysia combined. Even dogs feel the heat, and stop by bowls of water that managers of most restaurants and shops set out in front of their doors. Only cicadas rejoice at these temperatures, singing all night.

According to statistics, nearly 90 percent of Americans have air conditioning in their homes. This is one of the essential attributes of American life, along with shorts and t-shirts, hamburgers, Coca-Cola, fridges, and a bottle of water in hand. Then, suddenly, a blackout happens. Darkness immerses entire neighbourhoods; indoor temperatures become critical within a few hours. Items in the fridge melt and spoil instantly. Traffic lights don’t work, and car accidents… rather rare in the DC area… multiply. People are confused and frustrated. Fire and ambulance sirens blare more often. Since powerful winds accompanied the storm, many trees fell on cars and houses, cutting them in two. There was one house… now, there are two… Those who were fortunate had their electricity restored in less than a day. However, thousands went more than four days without power. This provoked a new wave of criticism.

According to surveys, Pepco, the dominant utility responsible for electricity supply in many areas of DC and in Montgomery County in Maryland, is one of the most hated names in the USA. Compared with other utilities, Pepco ranks below its competitors in the pace of outage repair. Two remarks are required here. The first one regards technology. Whilst relatively new neighbourhoods in the American capital and its suburbs have underground power lines, the older areas have aboveground wires. Therefore, any falling branch can cause serious disruptions in energy supply. The second remark is paradoxical. The irony is that Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest in the USA, full of prestigious and pricey houses and white rich neighbours. Yet, with surprising punctuality, it suffers from the weather effects. Ten years ago, the county’s residents had no power for two weeks in the wake of a similar thunderstorm. They bought up every diesel generator they could find within driving distance. This didn’t happen in a remote area of Montana or Oklahoma, but twenty minutes from the White House and Capitol Hill. To use terms familiar to Muscovites, it’s somewhere between Kuntsevo and Novo-Ogarevo.

Following an accident ten years ago, the word “Pepco” took on a new semantic connotation, meaning something that’s never resolved. There were hearings in the legislature, and a special commission worked out proposals on increasing the utility’s efficiency. Now, county residents say that the work has noticeably improved, but their air conditioners still fail in a heat wave, and this puts the company’s reliability back into question. Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who may run for president in 2016, also faced harsh criticism. Atlantic magazine wondered how the “Democratic Party’s hope for the White House in 2016” can run when, after six years in office, the governor “has done nothing to address his state’s power-utility woes”. It went on to say that his claim to national leadership “seems a practical joke”. Discussions are actively underway to enhance the utility’s reliability and efficiency. More changes will likely follow for the power companies, as well as for the prospects of certain elected figures, especially if new blackouts occur… a likely event. Record temperatures appear almost daily from the Midwest to the East Coast with the ever-present threat of “severe thunderstorms”.

9 July 2012

Svetlana Babaeva



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