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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT