Last night, I was on the NewsHour discussing how cities can increase their resilience to extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy. One thing we didn’t get to discuss is the question of whether or not the northeast ought to bury its power lines.
There’s a good article on that question out today in Popular Mechanics looking at the costs and benefits of burying power lines. It’s true that having buried power lines means you’re less likely to endure a blackout or get hit with falling power lines:
According to data from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), between 2004 and 2008, customers with aboveground electrical infrastructure experienced 1.3 power outages per year, on average. In contrast, customers with underground electric networks experience an average of 0.1 outages per year. In addition, underground lines seem to cause fewer injuries than overhead lines.
But that reliability and safety come at a pretty high price:
For example, in a new suburban neighborhood, installing ordinary overhead power lines costs about $194,000 per mile on average. Installing underground power lines would cost $571,000 per mile. And to retrofit an older suburban neighborhood with underground lines, the costs climb up to an average of $724,000 per mile.
For high-voltage transmission lines—the thick cables typically slung between towers that carry electricity across long distances—new underground installations can cost as much as $23 million per mile. Those costs get deflected to the consumer.
The article also points out that buried power lines are a mixed blessing: They’re harder to fix when something damages them, and they’re only one part of the weather-resilience picture when it comes to keeping the lights on. Above-ground parts of the system such as power sub-stations will always be vulnerable to extreme weather events.