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A Follow-Up On Burying Power Lines

After last month’s dercecho event knocked power out for some two million people in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore, many people wondered why more of the power lines that provide electricity to our communities are buried underground where they’d be far less likely to be effected by inclement weather. As I noted at the time, the logistical and cost issues associated with such a project were far larger than most people anticipated. Yesterday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration released a study that explained just how expensive the project could be, and how much it differs depending on the type of area you’re talking about, as reflected in this chart:

Not surprisingly, just putting up new overhead lines is the cheapest alternative. However, we’ve seen in most parts of the country that new developments, whether commercial or residential, typically end up having their power and other lines buried for the simple reason that it’s considered wiser to invest the extra cost of burying the lines to avoid the additional costs that would be incurred in the future by having to maintain and repair overhead lines. The costs differences between urban, suburban, and rural areas aren’t surprising either and are most likely related to issues of population density and having to deal with existing infrastructure. Indeed, based on the chart, it appears that it costs about as much to do a conversion in a rural area as it would to install new underground lines. Conversions in suburban and urban areas are far more expensive, quite obviously, because such a project would involved tearing through existing neighborhoods, digging up streets, and being careful not to interfere with underground gas lines and other such items. At $2,000,000 per mile, completely converting an area like Suburban Maryland would be almost cost prohibitive, for example.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that these costs are averages and that the project is likely to be far more expensive in some parts of the country:

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. The chart above 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.

Ezra Klein comments, and notes that there are alternatives to burying the lines that utility companies have available to them:

All told, the Edison Electric Institute estimates (pdf) that some 18 percent of the country’s distribution lines are buried. For the transmission system, only about 0.5 percent of lines sit beneath the surface. “Undergrounding an entire power system,” says EIA, “is considered cost prohibitive.” Instead, most utilities will just try to bury a few key lines.

Yet there are also other options, the EIA notes, from hardening above-ground infrastructure at crucial junctures to “vegetation management” to smart grid technology that reroutes power when lines go down. Burying power lines isn’t the only way to respond to a storm — and often it’s not even the most effective strategy.

Of course, as I noted last week, “vegetation management” becomes a problem when you have residents who yell and scream every time a utility comes by to trim a tree. The point, though, is that there are ways to deal with the problems created when storms knock out power lines that are far cheaper than burying the lines, and that we ought to be looking at those methods rather than jumping on the supposedly “easy” solution of putting the lines underground.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Chad S says:

    Until lines are buried, you can cut down all the trees in a given area but the power lines can still easily come down in a heavy storm. Considering that the Derecho in DC knocked all the pepco’s main lines(which aren’t buried), it makes far more sense to bury the main lines so that their 28 qualified crews for their entire service area have a chance to fix the problem in under 3-4 days.

    And in case you haven’t noticed since you’re in NOVA, but Pepco’s tree trimming projects have been clogging up the major roads of Montgomery county for years and at the cost of nearly 100 million dollars over the last 5 years.

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  2. Boyd says:

    The way I interpret the chart (with the “thousand dollars per mile” heading) is that urban new construction and conversion are around $2,000,000 per mile, not $2,000. That strikes me as high, but I have no expertise in this area, so what do I know?

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  3. @Boyd:

    Yea you’re right. I need to fix that.

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  4. Tony W says:

    San Diego is currently working to underground 30-35 miles of power lines each year, part of a 54-year project to do away with overhead lines in the city.

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  5. @Chad S:

    I assume you are willing to pay the higher utility bills that will be the inevitable result of such a project

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  6. DC Resident says:

    This study finds that the highest end of the range for burying urban power lines is a little over $2M per mile. But the average cost is less than $1M per mile. Yet Pepco has previously quoted $3.5M per mile to bury lines in the district. Even if you go with the highest end of the study’s range, that’s still 1.5 times the highest urban cost. Is there something particular about DC that the study didn’t take into account? Or is Pepco overcharging for the costs?

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  7. J-Dub says:

    We should put a giant nuclear powered ball of fire in space and harness the energy from its rays directly to each house, thus eliminating the need for power lines completely. Problem solved.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    Of course, as I noted last week, “vegetation management” becomes a problem when you have residents who yell and scream every time a utility comes by to trim a tree.

    That was taken care of here in Oregon. Utilities are required by law to do vegetation management.

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  9. Chad S says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Pepco’s raising rates to trim trees. They ask for 68 million a year in rate hikes to do so. Try again.

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  10. This chart only address one part of the equation. I’d also like to see how overhead vs. underground effects maintenance costs and distribution costs.

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  11. al-Ameda says:

    Over the years, I’ve been involved in a few projects to finance the undergrounding of overhead utility lines. As Doug noted, there are a number of factors that are wildcards when it comes to estimating cost – the type of surface you’re tearing up, is the area flat or on hillsides, etc.

    My most recent experience, from about 12 years ago, was that the cost was between $750,000 to $1,000,000 per mile, so, that $2M cost seems high. Again, every project has wild card variables

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  12. anjin-san says:

    I assume you are willing to pay the higher utility bills that will be the inevitable result of such a project

    Wow. You’re right. Improving infrastructure costs money. Let’s just stick with the time tested 19th century stuff conservatives so love, slap a few “USA #1” bumper stickers on our pickups and SUVs, and call it a day.

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  13. Anjin,

    You’re completely missing my point. Chad has been vocal in several posts about his disdain for the service PEPCO provides in suburban Maryland. Now he’s saying he wants to bury the lines. I’m asking if he’s willing to put his money where his mouth is.

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  14. anjin-san says:

    @ Doug

    Well, I think PG&E blows here in NorCal (literally – they blew up a residential block in San Mateo a while back) but that does not mean I don’t want better infrastructure or am not willing to pay the tab. Of course I can’t speak for Chad.

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  15. David says:

    @al-Ameda: I recently saw an estimate of 2,000,000 a mile to install underground facilities in a major metropolitan area close to 2,000,000 a mile. So that as the high end doesn’t surprise me.

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  16. David says:

    This is why I shouldn’t post from my phone. It was an estimate just shy of $2,000,000.

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  17. al-Ameda says:

    @David:

    @al-Ameda: I recently saw an estimate of 2,000,000 a mile to install underground facilities in a major metropolitan area close to 2,000,000 a mile. So that as the high end doesn’t surprise me.

    Thanks David.

    Well, 12 years later, at a compound annual increase rate of 6%, the $1M becomes $2M, so it’s not surprising.

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