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 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT