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Lose power?

by Richard Mason | May 30, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Richard Mason

Did you lose electrical power at your residence this past year?

We did out on Calion Road here in El Dorado when a big limb fell across several electric power lines during a thunderstorm, and for about 12 hours we were running around with flashlights and Coleman Lanterns to see by.

I will say one thing: it makes you appreciate the electrical grid when the when the lights come back on.

But our lights going out is just about par for the course. Power outages in El Dorado’s residential neighborhoods, and in our fair state, are just routine, and if you didn’t have at least one or two power outages during the year, consider yourself lucky. Of course, if you happen to be on the end of the transmission line, where your house is all by itself, you might find yourself without power for days; or when the remnants of a tropical storm just happen to roar up from the Gulf, with winds at 40 to 50 miles per hour, all bets are off along with a whole lot of folks’ lights. A storm track of twenty miles wide is guaranteed to turn off thousands of the lights. But if the mother of all outages, an ice storm, socks it to the state, lights go out for hundreds of thousands, and it may take weeks to restore power to everyone.

It seems we are just content to put up with the regular power outages as part of living in Arkansas, and that means get ready with flashlights by our bedsides and a Coleman Lantern in the kitchen to help see to cook breakfast. That is, unless you have an electric stove.

Yes, we can continue to do just that, and put up with having our power go out somewhere in the state every time a thunderstorm passes through… but we don’t have to. It’s a choice we make when we don’t insist our utilities be put underground.

I’m not exactly sure where Arkansas falls when it comes to putting our electrical grid underground, but I would be willing to bet it’s down toward the bottom of the rankings. Here’s what we need to do, and the example just happens to be in El Dorado:

Power is almost never off in downtown El Dorado, and it didn’t go off during the last big February freeze, or even a few years back when we had an ice storm.

Of course, we weren’t just lucky. Back in the 1960s, a Downtown Business Development District was formed to try and reverse the exodus of businesses from our downtown. They failed in their primary focus, but one thing they did was highly successful — they put all utilities underground.

The central core of downtown El Dorado has underground utilities, and since the late 60s, our lights have stayed on. Pictures taken before the utilities were put underground show a maze of wires, poles and electrical equipment. Not only were the poles and wires an eyesore, they were just as vulnerable to outages as any place in the city.

Of course, the sight of light poles, wires and transformer boxes take away from a town, and the hundreds of chopped off trees contribute another negative. Just how much curb appeal do you think a maze of poles and wires give to a street, downtown or a residence? Well, of course it’s a minus and a big one.

Underground utilities are an important part of the reason El Dorado’s downtown has been recognized by the National Main Street program as one of the nation’s top downtowns. Just think of the money saved by not pruning our downtown trees, and then consider the downtown businesses who didn’t lose power and kept right on making sales. Underground utilities pay for themselves.

However, as soon as you drive away from the center of town all those wires are right up there in the trees, and power outages are just waiting to happen. That’s when the tree choppers descend on the residential areas of town like a swarm of giant locusts, and tree after tree is mutilated. They were working down Madison Avenue, in El Dorado, one of the premier residential streets in town, this last week, and as the residents looked on in horror, tree after tree was chopped off dropping the curb appeal of the street down like a rock.

Of course, a heavily pruned tree takes pruning as a challenge to grow, and grow they do. So in about five years, the tree choppers will be back. A big pin oak can easily have a life of over a hundred years, which means it will be whacked some 20+ times. I’m not a math genius, but I can see thousands and thousands of wasted dollars from pruning. Multiply that by a thousand plus towns in our state, and we’re talking about a huge amount of money.

But it’s not just the money that is spent to prune the trees, which might be a threat to the electrical lines under their limbs; it’s the loss of income from individuals and stores that are part of the shutdown when power is lost. How much money do hundreds of stores, banks and restaurants lose when their power goes out? It’s easily in the millions of dollars. Add that to the loss of income when workers can’t come to work, and then plug in the unsightly poles, chopped off trees and maze of lines, and it easy to say we can’t afford to keep the overhead lines. Surely there is a better way to keep our power on.

And there is, but the mindset in the legislature and the companies who generate the power in our state say it costs too much to put electrical utilities underground.

I haven’t taken the time to add up the cost every time we have a power outage, but it must easily be in the millions of dollars in lost sales, income and cost to repair the downed lines. The “it costs too much,” rings hollow when compared to the loss of services and the cost to perpetually trim hundreds of trees, again, again, again, again, again, and I guess forever.

Is that what the power companies are telling us?

That rings hollow when you consider the example of downtown El Dorado. Putting the electrical services underground was easily done, and it has paid for itself many times over.

It seems to me that our legislature should set up a statewide plan to gradually mandate our electrical utilities be put underground. The money saved by not having to trim a street tree every five years would easily to pay for underground electrical service on that street. Every street or highway that has underground utilities saves the state, town and individuals thousands of dollars every time power is lost.

With the millions of trees lining the streets and highways in our state, it certainly makes sense to have a plan to gradually put all electrical services underground. Of course, it would save thousands of trees along the way from being telephone poles, and make the Natural State look a lot more natural.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]

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