Letter writer: In substation location issue, law of electrical current doesn’t bend for kids

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Editor’s note: This is the latest letter to the editor addressing the question of whether Duke Energy should build a new electrical substation next to Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Asheville.

Kirchhoff’s current law essentially tells us that for every electron leaving a power plant, one must return. If it didn’t return, we would get lightning bolts. Power companies push electrons (voltage) out of their plants on the two “hot” wires of 120 volts each. Once that current reaches our homes, we use it in our appliances, and then the electrons return to the power plant on the third or “neutral” wire. So far, so good.

That should work, but it doesn’t quite. The reason is [that] our appetite for power has grown, but our infrastructure to handle that increase has not grown as fast. More and more current can be “pushed” out of the power plants on the same old wires, but it becomes increasingly harder for the old neutral wire to accommodate it all for the return back to the power plant to satisfy Kirchhoff’s law.

To make matters worse, our computers and electronics have devices that jack up the frequency of the current to run their specific needs. These higher energized frequencies are multiples of the standard 60 hertz power that comes out of the plants. Trying to come back to the power plant, we get not only 60 hertz current, but multiples of that current like 120, 180, 240, 300, 360 and 420 hertz.

This higher energized current does not like to stay on the neutral wire. It builds up too much energy on the wires — and if it did not have a way off of the wire, we would maybe see fireballs up there. So the power companies run copper wires down their poles (yes, go look) to act as grounding rods for that extra energy. The electrons jump off the wire and go down to the ground — but they still have to get back to the power plant. So they do. They take the path of least resistance to get there. They flow along creeks and watercourses, pipelines, through buildings, through animals and across the ground. Some will hit your foot, flow up your body and out your other foot and keep going, while you never know it.

Substations are big magnets for these “stray” electrons. Substations have bigger wires and capacities to bring current back to the power plant. They collect electrons. Electrons want to go there. They do. They don’t care if they pass through a farm field or an elementary school and whatever is inside — like kids.

The city uses a lot of electricity. There are a lot of electrons that enter the city that have to find a way back. I think a lot of them will decide that big magnet over by the school is the easiest and shortest path of least resistance — and will go there. They will converge there in ever larger numbers.  All things in their path will be exposed to more and more of that “current.”

So what? There is no scientific data that proves there is a negative effect on the human body from this occurrence. That is true. What is also true is that very high currents most certainly do have a negative effect on the human body. They get electrocuted.

So we know there is a range of currents that we could be exposed to, and at some level, damage will occur. It’s just that no one knows exactly what that threshold level is. No one knows what is safe and what is not — no one. So we have to guess. The power plant guesses. The parents guess. Someone will ultimately be right, and someone will be wrong. If the power plant is right — that there is no harm — then all the parents’ concerns will have been for naught. Their kids will grow up bright and beautiful and lead wonderful lives. If the power plant is wrong though, those kids might not end up so bright and beautiful. There may be unknown long-term effects to the negative side.

Just what effects? We don’t know. But being a veterinarian, I know a few things about animals, cows in particular. Cows, you see, are about 100 times mores sensitive to electricity than we humans. You might call them our electrical canaries in the coal mine. Cows can have big problems from currents that don’t stay on wires. They get highly stressed and release cortisol. Their immune systems are compromised, and they become much more susceptible to disease that unexposed cows easily fight off. They die.

Power companies across this nation have lost multimillion-dollar lawsuits for failing to keep their electrons out of the ground around dairy farms. The power companies can fix this problem, but it costs money, So they weigh the financial cost of a few lawsuits versus the cost of fixing all that infrastructure, and they most often choose to pay the lawsuits because it’s cheaper. And it’s easy to just hang copper wire on the poles and let your “problem” fend for itself.

So there are adverse effects of these voltages on mammals, at least cows for sure. I think for people too — we just don’t have the studies to tell us how much, as no parent wants a kid in a study that might ultimately harm them. So we, once again, don’t know.

The final question here in Asheville is this: Which side do you want to err on? Do we figure that it will hopefully be OK, and then place multiple generations of our brightest, youngest and most vulnerable community members in the middle of the electron superhighway?

Or do we err on the side of caution — and tell the power companies to route that highway a different way?

Your choice, your voice. The time to speak up is now.

— Stephen Schulte


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2 thoughts on “Letter writer: In substation location issue, law of electrical current doesn’t bend for kids

  1. OneWhoKnows

    there’s been a substation right in the middle of downtown next to civic ctr for decades with no noticeable problems, right?

  2. Robert Vantoy

    Everything in this letter is wrong. Electricity is not transmitted from power plants at 115 volts, the wires are not too small to handle the current, and computers don’t turn normal electrons into vicious high frequency attack electrons that burrow underground and attack innocent schoolchildren. The gentleman should stick to treating sick cattle and leave electrical theory to the people that know what they are talking about. Otherwise you will come off looking as if you are full of cattle byproduct.

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