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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Whoops, it's winter!

You’ll all remember my whining about the weather from last week I am sure. Well, for all my unhappiness about the temps and the snow we were very lucky.
To the west and north of us, in an estimated (by geographically challenged me) distance from 40 km to 80 km people had reason to be even less happy.

Groaning and creaking under the weight of the ice and snow (in some regions up to 20 cm on the ground) around 50 electricity masts gave. You can see some of the wreckage in the pictures. Thus 250,000 people were without electricity for up to five days. The economic losses are estimated at 100 million Euros, not counting the damages that freak surges caused in private households.

The initial explanation by electricity supplier RWE was that their masts had been built according to scientific data concerning average snow, ice and wind levels of each region, and that even after this disaster they would not put up stronger masts because this region is usually not subject to stresses like the ones experienced now.
Still, RWE arranged a relief fund of 5 million Euros to help special hardship cases.

I may be a lay person here, but I’ve been wondering. The more snowy regions in the mountains down south sure have a lot more snow. But winter temperatures there are always lower than here. So what they get is a lot of snow, but doesn’t snow reach a point when piling up on masts and wires where it just starts to slide off?
While this is the region of not very much snow and lots of rain at temperatures around the point of freezing. So what we get in autumn/winter and winter/spring is rain that starts to freeze on things, often magically transforming bare trees to delicate works of art, coated in ice. (Much to the trees’ owners dismay because more often than not, what makes the trees look like they’ve been wrought of coloured glass is so heavy that a lot of branches snap under the weight.) Likewise electricity masts and wires get coated. And that stuff does not drop off unless the weather gets warm enough to melt it.
I remember going to school by train, and every year you’d see the wires along the track coated in ice, sagging sometimes so much that they almost touched the ground. And why did they use the opportunity to put the cables into the ground when the new train company dug everything up to rebuild the tracks a few years ago?

Well, anyway, according to a consumer organisation, the owners of a wind power station and people living close to the masts RWE was well aware that their masts would not hold against much stress, due to old material and lack of repair. Apparently some masts were 40 to 50 years old and thus built of low quality steel that has become brittle by now. Fact is that there is a lot of rust to be seen in all that wreckage.

RWE countered those accusations by saying that on the contrary those masts had been checked and repaired regularly. Also the stresses put upon the masts and wires now had been 15 times higher than average, which no masts in Europe could have withstood.

Investigations are continuing.

If RWE is truly found to be at fault this will become rather expensive for them….