Burying Power Lines: Improves Reliability, At What Cost?
Feb 27, 2014

Here at AUS, we focus on ensuring that you receive the most competitive energy price possible. Once we’ve secured your energy, it’s really up to your traditional utility to make sure that you receive it. For many in North America this winter, this has proved to be a major challenge. Snow and ice storms coupled with high winds have roared in and disrupted electricity service to millions of people. In Mid-February, over half a million lost power in 16 different states, largely in the Carolina’s and Georgia. Earlier in February another storm interrupted power to over 1 million people, mostly in Pennsylvania.  Right before Christmas, over 300,000 people in Toronto lost their power due to an ice storm. And it’s not just winter, lest we forget that Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to over 8 million people throughout the east coast in 2012. But when the power goes out, it’s more than just an inconvenience; it claims hundreds of lives and billions of dollars of economic activity each year. Overhead power lines are being labeled as the culprit in most cases, intensifying a push to take these power lines underground. But is that a move that is feasible or cost effective for most places?

Taking it Underground

It would seem that the most logical and commonsense solution to preventing these devastating blackouts would be to take all the overhead power lines and put them below ground. After all, by being underground they wouldn’t be subjected to the high winds and heavy ice that so often brings them down. And it’s not like this isn’t a proven solution. In Manhattan, power lines have been buried for the last 125 years, after the great blizzard of 1888 wreaked havoc on the array of above ground lines. Not surprisingly, Manhattan’s power grid is considered to be as much as ten times as reliable as the average American grid. Besides Manhattan, other U.S. cities have begun embracing underground electric lines in recent years. Both Anaheim, California and Concord, Massachusetts are in the midst of putting their lines underground, and both seem to be enjoying improved reliability.

But it’s not just increased reliability that makes moving power lines below ground an attractive option. Many people would tell you that overhead lines clutter outdoor space, restrict views and contribute to making some urban areas unattractive. Moving lines underground tends to open up these spaces, making our cities, towns and rural areas much easier to look at, which is never a bad thing, and may even hold economic value for many locations. Additionally, moving these lines below ground could be an environmentalist’s (and certainly an arborist’s) dream come true. Currently many trees are forcibly removed or trimmed in an effort to keep them from interfering with or falling on overhead lines. This can be particularly unfortunate in urban areas where there are simply not that many trees to begin with. And being able to keep those trees would certainly help improve the looks of our neighborhoods and streets.

But It’s Not That Easy

So, if moving power lines below ground leads to increased reliability, better looks, and more trees, why aren’t we doing this right now? Well there are many things impeding this movement, but first and foremost is cost. It can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million to bury just one mile of overhead wires, which is about 5 to 10 times as much as it cost to simply construct as overhead wires. That is a cost that would be borne by electricity customers to the tune of 125% to 300% rate increases over several decades. Those burying their lines, such as Concord, have mitigated the cost somewhat by spreading the conversion out over time, around 75 years or so (Hey, your grandkids might enjoy it). Unfortunately, there just isn’t a way to do it both fast and cheap. Related to this high capital cost, is the increase in repair expenses for underground lines. It simply is more difficult for workers to dig up lines to repair, not to mention determine where a problem even exists, than it is to climb a ladder and fix when above ground. Workers also require special training to maintain below-ground power lines.

Cost, though, isn’t the only thing preventing lines from burrowing in. Many places just aren’t suitable for burying these lines. For example, buried lines in coastal areas prone to flooding are susceptible to corrosive salt water, which damages lines. Barriers can be constructed to further protect lines from this, but at a substantial cost to the already expensive lines. Also, many urban areas just don’t have anywhere to bury the overhead lines, except maybe under the street. And that’s far from an ideal spot. Not only would you have to rip up usually busy streets to do it, (just what everyone loves) but repairs would now represent not only power interruption, but traffic issues. A double whammy if one ever existed. There’s also concern that having such cables under streets would lead to increasingly rougher roads.

Even if a community could accept and manage the above mentioned issues, other hurdles await them in undertaking such a project. Unless a municipality operates its own utility, like Concord and Anaheim, it will face immense difficulty from both their public utility and Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) to get approval for such a project. Those entities simply don’t want any part of such an uneconomical project at this time, especially when lower income customers are resistant to them.

Making It Work

It’s quite clear when looking at this situation that moving our electrical distribution system below ground won’t be happening anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it to some extent.

  • Distribution lines to new developments should be placed underground from the beginning. While still expensive, it is cheaper than having to move them later. Many utilities, such as Pepco and BG&E have been doing this for several decades.
  • Lines well away from coastal and urban areas should slowly be transitioned below ground, especially areas prone to falling debris. These are the most cost effective areas to change and can be done over several decades to mitigate costs to rate payers.

These things won’t give us the same reliability as burying all our lines, but it would certainly improve dependability and do so without drastically increasing energy costs. With any luck, we’ll make the ideas of Nikola Telsa work in the future and make all this moot, but until then we’ll have to continue to balance grid reliability and cost effectiveness.

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