Whilst ambling around San Carlos recently, I came upon the power pole shown here. Ugly, isn’t it? Or maybe not. In fact, my reaction was one of gratitude, prompted in part by the “Gratitude” chapter in Joel Wade’s excellent book, Mastering Happiness (available at drjoelwade.com). I had listened to the chapter the previous evening.
What is there about this power pole that warrants gratitude, and to whom? The answer lies in really looking at the pole and pondering the devices, wires and cables attached to it.
The top crossbar holds wires that provide the electrical supply, probably three-phase 440 volts. I know the supply comes from a substation a mile away which in turn is fed from very high voltage transmission lines east of the freeway. Three transformers on the pole step the 440 down to 220 and feed it to surrounding buildings.
Ugly grey boxes? Not to me. Some anonymous engineers put their heart and soul into designing those transformers. The basic idea of a transformer has been known for years: use a pair of coils with different winding densities to convert electrical energy into magnetic energy and then back to electrical at a desired voltage. But to design a really good transformer requires careful attention to fabrication costs, reliability, safety, and operating efficiency. No transformer is perfect; some energy gets lost as waste heat, and heat must be dissipated even in the hottest weather lest temperatures exceed safe operating levels. (Notice the cooling fins on each transformer.) The fluid bath which enhances efficiency must never leak – or more precisely, the probability of leakage must be kept extremely low. Nice job, guys (maybe gals, too). Thanks!
I see telephone wires. Of course, wireline telephone service is declining but still there is a lot to ponder. Four blocks away is a big windowless AT&T building which I believe houses switching equipment that was a marvel in its day.
I see coaxial cables that transmit television and internet signals. Just think of the torrent of information coursing through those cables. These days we all take megabit download speeds as a God-given right. Try to picture millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of bits traversing one of those cables every second. In addition, the cables entering those poles from Comcast’s central office, wherever that may be, carry a mix of packets destined for different recipients. They must be sorted and delivered on time and in the proper sequence to the various recipients served by our pole. I see three small boxes on the pole that may perform that function. The Post Office is a block away. Imagine the sorters there sorting a million letters per second!
I see a small device which may be an antenna for the new wireless electric and gas meters. Predictably, there have been complaints about health effects from these devices, likely from people who have no clue about the difference between ionizing radiation and RF radiation. Others have complained about privacy. I personally feel no need to hide the details of my electrical usage. I look forward to the advent of time-of-day pricing that these meters will enable. The resulting incentives should save money for many people including me. In addition, PG&E will be able to forestall increases in peak power capacity.
The pole itself is a tree trunk treated with creosote. Aluminum is used in substation structures and transmission towers but is evidently uneconomical for street poles. Wooden poles eventually rot and require replacement. But replacing a pole requires far less time and labor than in past times because of the improved equipment and procedures that have been developed.
Now I grant you that such poles will remain ugly in the eyes of many beholders no matter how much they may learn about their function. So why not put all the wires underground? Just dig a trench and move them, right? Not so fast, it’s nowhere near that easy. Of course it can be done and has been done but there are many complex and expensive details. For one thing, most of the buildings served by the relocated lines would require interior modifications to accept cables from underground rather than overhead. It wouldn’t do, as part of a beautification project, just to run cables down the outside of a building from the old rooftop connection point to the new underground point. Underground transformers are costlier and harder to access. The old service must be kept running until the new service is ready, and the switchover must be done quickly and near-perfectly. The costs and benefits of an undergrounding project should be carefully weighed before it is undertaken.
Gratitude to a power pole? No, in the spirit of Leonard Read’s I, Pencil I owe my gratitude to the countless individuals who made it possible. I think of Faraday and Maxwell who gave us the keys to understand electromagnetism. Edison and Tesla who pioneered power generation. Anonymous engineers and linemen who make it happen. Bold thinkers of the Enlightenment who paved the way for what McCloskey calls bourgeois dignity and the consequent explosion of Western living standards in the last three centuries.
Some people are moved to gratitude by religious iconography. Good for them. For me, a power pole does the trick.