Mainewhile: Bury the lines

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In Brunswick, we managed to use our first “snow day” before the first week of school ended, and certainly before any actual snow flew.

The weird little storm, short but powerful, took out power to much of town. Not only was it inconvenient, it was shockingly familiar. Remember last October? Again, just one quick hit, and huge chunks of Maine were without power for long stretches of time. These storms, and their effects, are becoming the new norm.

I don’t have the answer to climate change. I’m quite sure making it illegal to study or discuss it (North Carolina, I’m looking at you right now), isn’t going to solve the problem, but I also don’t pretend to know what will.

What I do want to explore, is how to deal with the effects. At least in an immediate and extremely local way.

Given my druthers (and a magic wand), I’d have every roof done up in solar panel shingles, and bird-friendly tree-like sculpture wind turbines in the backyard, so every house would be self-powered. Alas, I have no such magic wand. I also realize there are not only huge technology gaps in that plan, but also a measure of privileged thinking. For a whole host of reasons, some homes need to be able to tie into a centralized grid.

Setting aside (for now) the idea of every home maintaining itself on 100 percent renewable and green power, how can we make the current system better?

Bury the lines. Please, please, please bury the lines.

Imagine, just for a moment, what life would be like if a storm whipping through meant no downed lines, because those same lines were safely buried underground. Now imagine how pretty our streets and towns would look without power poles and wires cluttering up our visual plane.

I truly do not understand why we still, with all that we know to be true, insist on stringing our power supply delivery system from tilting pole to tilting pole in precarious arcs above our heads.

Burying the lines will be complicated. Yes, I get this. But suspend your objection for a moment, and consider: What if, instead of digging up streets, we dug up sidewalks, or the space for a sidewalk?

Imagine creating “sidewalk-width” channels to our houses, deep enough to go below the frost line, fitted with a protective box. We could lay the wires in (they could even clip in, like a high tech circuit board), and top it with a locking, but liftable lid, over which we lay another locking, but liftable surface. Now, we not only have protected, safe wires – we have lovely, safe, walkable, bikeable sidewalks connecting us through our towns and cities.

Some cities are already experimenting with sidewalk surfaces suspended on springs so that the stepping of foot traffic creates stored energy. We could do that. Others are making sidewalks that collect solar for power and self-heating, as well as being luminescent, so sidewalks stay snow free and light up blue-green at night (I say sure). The surface can be whatever we want. We can become an evolving experiment, all while maintaining the integrity of our grid, and improving our visual appearance.

Burying the lines will be expensive for sure. I’m not going to even pretend that I have the information necessary to accurately calculate the costs of such a project. What I do know – OK, what I assume – is that in the end run, it will not be more expensive than all the line work and repairs and tree trimmings, both in regular annual maintenance and storm-damage repair, to say nothing of the extenuating costs of a major outage. Consider the work days lost, the school days lost, the costs of damage to produce and stock. Someone smarter than me can crunch the numbers, but I bet they check out.

This is my idea, this is my plea. Some of you out there will have reasons why this won’t work. Some of these comments might just be party-pooper style, but I bet some will be really valid. I say “bring ‘em,” I want to know where the flaws are, so we can all brainstorm the solutions to fix them.

As certain as I am that climate change is real, I am just as certain that we humans are up to the challenge of inventing new ways to cope. So let’s get those opposing arguments going – and then bury the wires.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at heather@heatherdmartin.com.

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