Sunday, October 30, 2011

More power to the people: bury electrical lines

In the wake of 3.2 million customers losing power due to the East Coast Halloween snow storm, it seems timely to raise the question: should we invest in burying our power lines? While expensive, it would be a job creator whose benefits would be enjoyed for decades. Just imagine what life would be like when the weather turns surly and ...gasp...the power does not go out.

NPR explored the issue a few months ago in an interview between host Robert Siegel and Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida's Public Utility Research Center.

KURY: Certainly the cost is going to depend on the geography and the density of the region. A rule of thumb that we use down here in Florida is roughly a million dollars per mile.
SIEGEL: A million dollars per mile underground. And, say, above ground?
KURY: Well, that would be roughly the incremental cost.
SIEGEL: The incremental cost. I've heard the ratio 10 to 1 tossed around. That it's ten times more expensive to bury power lines than to run them above ground.
KURY: Ten to one is probably not a bad back in the envelope number.
SIEGEL: So it costs a great deal more to bury cables, but then again you don't routinely lose service in snow storms or hurricanes. Don't the costs of maintaining above ground lines start to add up?
KURY: Well, they do, but you're not really eliminating risk completely when you underground the power lines. You're simply trading off one type of risk for another. Yes, you've mitigated the risk of losing power because of a failure in the pole or a tree getting blown into the lines. But you've traded that risk off for outages due to storm surge or to flooding.
SIEGEL: But underground aren't there other things already there in many of these same communities, say, you know, television cables underground?
KURY: Certainly. But you still have the expense of digging everything up again. And burying a power line underground, there are certain allowances that you have to make. When electricity flows through a distribution line or a transmission line it generates heat. And out in the air that heat is allowed to dissipate, but underground you have to make other allowances for basically cooling those lines.
SIEGEL: Do you think that the argument in favor of burying lines is in large part an aesthetic one? That only utilities think a utility pole is a thing of beauty?
KURY: Well, I think that people tend to only think about the reliability of the electric system when the power goes out. So most of the time - I would guess - when communities are making the decision to pay for power lines to be underground primarily it's aesthetic, because effectively you don't see the power lines every day if they're buried underground. Where any reliability benefit that may accrue is not even really obvious when there's a storm event.
SIEGEL: From what I'm hearing you say, I wouldn't expect any change here in American practice about whether power lines go underground or above ground.
KURY: Well, the problem is it's very difficult for a utility to unilaterally make that decision. Ultimately, the utility is responsible to the Public Service Commission of that particular state, who will assess whether a utilities expenditure was prudent. So it really does take a collective effort between policymakers and regulators and the utilities themselves to affect any kind of change. It really is an effort where everyone has to work together.
So there is an investment state public utility commissions could mandate which would create jobs and would make our electrical system more reliable. Shouldn't we all be talking more about this, rather than freezing in the dark and requiring utility workers to risk their lives climbing icy poles in hazardous weather to fix power lines broken during a storm? 

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