What Happens as Power Infrastructure Ages?

As transformers and utility poles age – and as electric companies put their bottom lines ahead of safety – serious electrocution hazards remain

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Electric power companies often put their bottom lines ahead of safety. Pressures on capital budgets —created by the motivation to maximize profits to shareholders of investor-owned companies and public resistance to rate hikes — have caused power companies to extend the usual life expectancy of their structures, sometimes beyond what is safe and prudent.

In fact, aging infrastructure was identified as the No. 1 challenge electrical companies face in a recent survey by Utility Dive. Today’s energy grid is the same that Thomas Edison invented over 100 years ago. To put this into perspective, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. energy infrastructure the barely passing grade of D+ in 2013.

Such poor infrastructure presents many problems. For instance, from 2007 to 2011, power outages rose 75%.These problems will only worsen, as the demand for electricity in all regions is expected to increase up to 9% through 2020. In turn, the infrastructure problems will worsen.

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The Electric Power Research Institute concluded that most large transformers that regulate power transmission were designed for life spans of 40 to 50 years to maximize reliability and efficiency. Yet we’re at the tail end of that lifespan, as the average age of transformers is 42 years old. With loosening screws and wires fraying, the public is vulnerable to electrocution and other serious safety issues.

Transformers aren’t the only aging problem, either. Utility poles and cables are also approaching 40 to 50 years in service. In the Northeast, the average life of a distribution pole is 56 years old. Yet some of these poles are lasting for 85 years. Just because these poles can last that long does not mean power companies should allow them to get that old.