Skip to main content

Burying power lines not always the answer

By Theodore J. Kury
updated 7:31 AM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
Vehicles are piled up in an wreck Friday, February 14, in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Traffic accidents involving multiple tractor-trailers and dozens of cars completely blocked one side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike outside Philadelphia. Vehicles are piled up in an wreck Friday, February 14, in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Traffic accidents involving multiple tractor-trailers and dozens of cars completely blocked one side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike outside Philadelphia.
HIDE CAPTION
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
Southeast storm moves north
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Theodore Kury: When bad weather hits, people ask: Why not bury the power lines?
  • He says it appeals as way to prevent power outages, but difficulties include cost
  • He says utility, regulators, government all must buy-in -- above-ground often easier
  • Kury: Buried lines subject to flood damage and are hard to repair

Editor's note: Theodore Kury, Ph.D., is the director of energy studies at the University of Florida's Public Utility Research Center, where he studies the economic impacts of energy policy. The Public Utility Research Center is sponsored in part by the Florida electric utilities and the Florida Public Service Commission, neither of which has editorial control of any of the content produced by the center.

(CNN) -- As winter storms continue to pound the United States, causing billions in damage and millions to be without electricity service, customers inevitably ask why doesn't somebody -- my utility, my regulator, my government -- do something about this? Why aren't power lines, for example, buried safely underground?

It's not that simple.

The short answer? It is expensive, requires the buy-in of multiple entities that serve the community and doesn't always solve the problem.

Theodore Kury
Theodore Kury

Because it costs so much to bury power lines, it's crucial that the expense yields value for electricity consumers, who will ultimately bear all the costs associated with providing electricity service.

It's easy to see why a community under siege by intense weather would want to put the lines underground: Underground lines are protected from wind-related damage as well as ice and snow. But they also may be more vulnerable to damage from water intrusion.

They're popular, too, in densely populated areas and new subdivisions where utility poles and a plethora of overhead lines would cause a kind of overhead congestion. As of 2012, about 39% of the customers in the United States reported having underground electricity service.

But going underground can be difficult: In the electric utility business in the United States, it is nearly impossible for the utility, regulator or government to address the question of changing how power is delivered without the sign-on and cooperation of the others.

Frum: Why we should bury the power lines

Let's start with the utility company: It is closest to the challenge, managing the electricity system, but cannot spend the money to change the power line configuration without the assurance from its regulator, whether it is the state public service commission or a city commission, that it will recover its investment through the rates it charges to its customers.

For its part, the regulator cannot directly fix the power lines but still must ensure that any money the utility spends provides value for consumers.

Finally, the government, or the other voice for the consumers, must determine whether consumers are willing to pay for such a change. (The state of Florida's reaction in the wake of the 2004-2005 hurricane seasons provides a model for this type of cooperative effort, as utilities, regulators and government officials meet every year to address the efficacy of Florida's storm hardening efforts, including the potential undergrounding of power lines.)

Then there are two major challenges associated with relocating power lines underground:

First, it is very expensive.

Burying power lines costs roughly $1 million per mile, but the geography or population density of the service area can halve this cost or triple it. In the wake of a statewide ice storm in December 2002, the North Carolina Utilities Commission and the electric utilities explored the feasibility of burying the state's distribution lines underground and concluded that the project would take 25 years and increase electricity rates by 125%. The project was never begun; the price increase was not seen as reasonable for the consumers.

Atlantans stocks up for winter storm
Forecast: Crippling, catastrophic ice
After storm, thousands without power

A 2010 study on undergrounding a portion of the electricity system in the District of Columbia for the Public Service Commission found that costs would increase rapidly as utilities tried to underground more of their service territory.

The study concluded that a $1.1 billion (in 2006 dollars) investment could improve the reliability for 65% of the customers in the utility's service territory, but an additional $4.7 billion would be required to affect the remaining 35% of customers in outlying areas. That is, over 80% of the costs for the project would be required to benefit roughly one third of the customers.

Burying the lines raises another potential problem: reduced accessibility of the lines, making it more difficult to repair the system. So while customers may see fewer outages as a result of undergrounding, the duration of those outages may increase.

Electric users ask: Why not put power lines underground?

Other benefits of undergrounding, such as aesthetic ones, may be more difficult to quantify, but studies have shown that consumers are sometimes willing to pay more for underground service.

Second, burying power lines does not always protect them from storm damage. It may mitigate damage from wind events such as flying debris, falling trees and collected ice and snow, but so can trimming trees, replacing wood poles with steel, concrete or composite ones, or reinforcing poles with guy wires. These strategies may be nearly as effective in reducing storm damage and may cost less.

Finally, undergrounding power lines only shifts the risk of damage from wind events to the risk of damage from corrosive storm surge and flooding that may result from rainfall or melting ice and snow. Areas with greater vulnerability to storm surge and flooding will confront systems that are less reliable -- and at greater cost - as a result of undergrounding.

In short, whether a community should go underground with its power lines is a question to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the utility, its regulator and the government.

Otherwise, consumers will end up spending more for their electricity service and getting less.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ted Kury.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT