The last week of October brought fierce winds, broken trees and poles, and power outages. In Provincetown, no one had electricity for the first day, and in large sections of the Outer Cape, power was out for four days.
This was a memorably wicked nor’easter. Big winds, foliage still up. Wires came down everywhere. An impressive repair effort restored most service by late Saturday, but another storm on Sunday created a new round of outages.
Eversource mobilized work crews who brought their rigs from as far away as Florida and Quebec. We are all grateful to those who braved the winds in their buckets, working the poles. This hard work was surely costly for the utility.
It was more costly, however, for the many Cape Codders who will not be able to write off their losses — the businesses closed, workdays missed, health support systems not functioning, food spoiled.
Why does this continue to happen? When will we face the fact that it will only happen more if we do not commit ourselves to changes — not just in our energy dependence but also in our infrastructure?
It is time to improve the reliability of our access to electricity. Start by putting the wires underground. Without a doubt, burying the power lines in conduits across the Cape is a big undertaking. It will be expensive, as representatives from Eversource have told us.
But when we must take action, we do. Consider the inevitable water and sewer line installations that we are facing to protect our groundwater and estuaries. Every one of our towns is looking at its infrastructure.
The time has come for us to coordinate that planning with a plan for underground electric supplies.
Eversource’s response is to cut down more of our trees to protect their wires. But we need more trees, not fewer, to pull the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Ultimately, the question of distributed generation — smaller-scale power sources, closer to home — also has to be addressed. That is clearly a path to reducing the vulnerability we experience from being tethered to the large-scale grid and its failures. The wind and solar power resources now becoming so cost-effective should not require centralizing. The same might be true for the power to be harnessed from our world-class tides.
As is very often the case, our experience comes down to a big corporation having its way with our civic life. In a world where every corporate decision is made with reference to short-term economic metrics, major expenditures that yield only long-term savings are not seriously considered — even though there are realistic choices that could be made to reduce our vulnerability to power outages.
Days after the first storm, I participated in Cape Cod Net Zero 21, a virtual climate change conference. From the scientists’ presentations, it was clear that we can expect more frequent occurrences of more unusual storms like the ones we’ve just been through. Already, they are no longer so unusual.
But a corollary takeaway from that gathering was the pressing need to reduce our own contribution to climate change by replacing fossil fuels with renewables, especially wind, hydropower, and photovoltaic energy. For all of us, this will mean transitioning over the next decade into consumers of electricity — we will use it to heat our homes, do our cooking, and power our vehicles.
Sure, there will be practical challenges in this transition. But an unreliable electric power supply, as we have just seen, would be the Achilles heel of such a change.
We are still catching up after the disruptions of everyday life that affected us last month, when eating and staying warm became basic tests of our ingenuity. The virtual workplaces and meetings that many of us have come to live with suddenly were impossible.
If our towns’ water systems failed this badly, voters would demand change.
The decisions made by distant corporate boards now have long-lasting and critical influences on our existence. They need to be held accountable for the costs they impose on the communities they serve.
I believe we can take this on. The evidence is in our response to the Covid pandemic. It has challenged us like nothing before. We responded collaboratively here and limited the very personal losses it brought.
Planning for our collective future, now being reconsidered with ever greater urgency, must be mindful of the costs that we all bear, and not just the short-term bottom line of a key player who seems to hold the cards.
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected]