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July 16, 2012

German Power Protection Distribution Model Could Teach U.S. a Lesson

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Contributor

With climate scientists convinced that storms are getting more violent and erratic due to a changing earth, why does the United States’ power distribution system resemble a developing country more than someplace like Germany, wondered Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks in a recent blog post.

While U.S. cities experience frequent power outages due to trees falling on power lines or motor vehicles hitting utility poles—the cause of up to half of all power outages in the U.S., said Rodricks—countries such as Germany have few such power problems.

He noted that delivering power from lines on wooden poles makes them “vulnerable to trees that fall in violent storms, tripping off a domino reaction of damage and the loss of life, commerce, productivity and millions in capital for repairs.”

Rodricks chided: “We should say to America's energy scientists and engineers: Come on, find a way to modernize this piece of our aging infrastructure.”

He recommended burying power lines underground, while recognizing that the costs will not be cheap. “The Associated Press (News - Alert) quoted a range of $5 million to $15 million per city mile,” he noted, but “you can count on [storm] cleanup being in the multiple millions, too.”

“Part of the solution may be to put many power wires underground,” noted Mike Pierce in a response to the Rodricks post, but in actuality, Germany is a model of lower-cost power distribution solutions.

One power distribution difference between Germany and the U.S. is that Germany strings power lines from house to house when there’s a row of houses lining the street, he wrote: “There are no extra, large poles to break (or look at) and no trees between the houses to fall on the wire.”

A second difference is that Germany runs its main power distribution lines across open farm fields between towns on metal towers instead of along the road like in the U.S., Pierce noted: “I don't think that the Germans would ever tolerate a row of ugly poles and all that wire on both sides of the road like we often have.” Aside from beautification, keeping the wires away from the street cuts down on cars and trees that can down power lines.

Germany also limits development sprawl more than the U.S., Pierce noted. This requires a less extensive and scattered electrical system in Germany, and “they only build a new house on the edge of an existing village, where the wire from the neighboring house is just extended to the new one.”

Could Germany truly be a model for us here in the States to look to?

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Edited by Allison Boccamazzo
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