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Back You are here: Home Opinion Opinion Section Editorials Editorial: Burying Power Lines Would Improve Skyline; But Expensive

Editorial: Burying Power Lines Would Improve Skyline; But Expensive

By WILLARD KILLOUGH III
Managing Editor

The issue of burying power lines was recently raised at a Carolina Beach Town Council meeting by Councilman Steve Shuttleworth when considering a franchise agreement with Progress Energy (Duke Energy).
The Council was told by a representative of Duke that a study would have to be completed first to determine the scope of such work and cost estimates.
This topic has come up numerous times over the last couple of decades when discussing revitalization efforts in the downtown Central Business District.
A study was done in the late 1980's showing expensive estimates including diagrams and drawings for streetlights.
However, over the years the discussion is listed as a long-term goal but inevitably always ends up falling behind other issues and projects.
True, there are a number of costly issues to consider such as where to bury the lines, altering existing building power connections, right of way and easement issues and many other factors.
The bottom line, it can be expensive.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently issued a report covering this very same topic.
According to the EIA, "Extended power outages in the aftermath of a large storm or hurricane often result in discussions around burying local power lines to prevent storm-related outages. Calls for "undergrounding" are common from customers, elected officials, and sometimes state utility commissions. However, undergrounding is costly and the decisions are complex. The cost of underground power lines is significant—up to five to ten times more than overhead distribution lines. And converting existing overhead lines includes the added cost of dismantling the overhead system. Life cycle costs of underground lines are further increased due to a shorter useful life and higher repair and replacement costs. However, power outages are also costly for our electricity-dependent society—loss of revenue to businesses forced to shut down, costs to families throwing out spoiled food or providing their own power with home generators. And for power outages during extreme weather, such as the recent Mid-Atlantic/Northeast heat wave, extreme discomfort and health consequences are a further concern."
According to the EIA report titled, "Power outages often spur questions around burying power lines" at www.eia.gov, the cost ranges shown for undergrounding represent wide variation around a number of factors, including customer density (urban vs. rural), labor costs, and the type of ground - consider Colorado's granite bedrock, or Florida's high water table. Each construction project is unique and costs from one utility's study may not be easily comparable with another.

According to the EIA report the chart shows the cost to the utility, which may or may not flow through to consumers in its entirety.
For example a regulated utility may not be allowed to transfer all of the costs to their customers' electricity bills. Or, a municipality might provide funds, land, or materials for the project, avoiding costs transferred directly to consumers. If individuals want their own connections put underground, they are typically responsible for the cost.
The EIA report states, "The effect of undergrounding on a customer's utility bill depends on the characteristics of each unique project. A few examples show a range of effects: A 2010 study assessing undergrounding options requested by the District of Columbia Public Utility Commission noted that burying all overhead equipment would cost $5.8 billion. A local utility official later stated this would add $226 to the average monthly bill over 10 years, or $107 per month for 30 years."
It should be noted that Carolina Beach is nowhere near the size and scope of the District of Columbia, but exponentially it shows an extreme end of the spectrum concerning costs.
The EIA report pointed out that, "After a series of storms, North Carolina investigated the costs of undergrounding the state's distribution infrastructure and found it would raise electric rates by over 125%. Anaheim, California, decided to completely convert its system for aesthetic reasons. To minimize the impact on customer bills, undergrounding is taking place slowly over a period of 50 years, funded by a 4% surcharge on electric bills."
According to the EIA, "Despite the cost, underground power lines are often found in urban areas, where the density of the required overhead wire would cause significant obstructions. Also, nearly all new residential and commercial developments have underground utility infrastructure, often required by law for aesthetic reasons. This is often the least expensive type of undergrounding project, as undergrounding costs are reduced when earthmoving equipment is already being used to prepare a building site. Overall, roughly 18% of distribution line mileage is underground, according to the Edison Electric Institute's 2009 update of the Out of Sight, Out of Mind study on underground circuits. On the transmission system, 0.5% of line mileage of 200 kilovolts or higher capacity is underground."
The EIA report weighs the benefits of buried power lines explaining they are, "protected from the wind, ice, and tree damage that are common causes of outages, and so suffer fewer weather or vegetation-related outages. But buried lines are more vulnerable to flooding, and can still fail due to equipment issues or lightning. Problems with underground lines are harder to locate and repair. Underground distribution circuits are typically still linked to aboveground facilities, such as substations and transmission lines, so homes and buildings served by underground infrastructure will not necessarily be spared in the event of system-wide outages from a major storm."
The report states, "Undergrounding an entire power system is considered cost prohibitive. More commonly, a utility will study undergrounding a few key circuits. This is compared against other options for preventing outages, such as "hardening" the system with protective equipment at vulnerable points, taking a more aggressive approach to vegetation management, improving the system design, or implementing new technology. Smart grid technology, which would allow a utility to pinpoint problems, divert power through other circuits to minimize outages, and optimize crew deployments is another potential approach to reducing outages."
Carolina Beach is susceptible to tropical storm and hurricane weather events but the major driving factor behind the long-standing desire to bury power lines is appearance.
If you look at the Carolina Beach Boardwalk or Carolina Beach Avenues North and South as well as Canal Drive, the spider web of power lines is far from appealing.
Yet the obvious issue is cost. It would cost lots of money, particularly within areas where homes and condos are so close to each other, to accomplish the task over an extended period of time.
What ever the solution, its certainly worth researching and should be set as a concrete goal that is constantly followed up on with the appropriate officials.
The Carolina Beach study I referenced is so old its collecting dust in some corner of my office and most likely there's a copy at Town Hall on some shelve.
Short of any major redevelopment project in the Boardwalk area, those power lines will likely not find their way underground due to the age of the buildings and their close proximity to each other.
The ultimate question will be who pays the cost and obviously how much the power company is willing to pay for based on the benefits mentioned in the EIA article.

Source: http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7250