Economics, Energy and the Environment

Bury the power lines?

Image Credit: Tsmall (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image Credit: Tsmall (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

6 thoughts on “Bury the power lines?

  1. Of course bury the power lines. Many places will be out of power for weeks, maybe even months.

    The next time we decide to plss away $800 billion via a “stimulus” program, lets consider doing something that will create jobs and add prolonged value to our standard of living.

    Transfer payments (as much as 75% of the failed stimulus program) add ZERO value–there is no bang for the buck.

  2. Overall it’s still worth it. If the government stuck to what it’s supposed to spend money on, these costs wouldn’t be so onerous. As it is, only a fraction is spent on projects that benefit anyone.

  3. The power companies should be in no hurry to repair distribution when every other move they make is greeted with bad publicity and legal action. They should take their time restoring power, especially in neighborhoods with concentrations of NIMBYs.

  4. “Many places will be out of power for weeks, maybe even months.” That will be true if you have to bury. Above ground lines are much faster and easier (and yes, lower cost). Electric utilities pass on those costs to the consumer, so its not a good benefit for the consumer. Yes, there are occasional outages, but digital control systems makes it much easier to re-route power now than it used to. And its a no brainer to figure out what goes wrong when an aboveground line goes out. Not so for underground (which, despite the belief of some here, have reliability that isn’t much better than above ground lines…) http://eei.org/ourissues/electricitydistribution/Documents/UndergroundReport.pdf

    So, if you want the system up fast – put up poles, and enough of this nonsense.

  5. You gotta remember- this is a storm of the century. So should we make irrational decisions for something that comes along once in a hundred years? I’m just sayin…

  6. The article is true, given the cost of burying existing wires. It may not be worth it. What I don’t understand, (having gotten my power on last night) is how come Google can find me on my cell phone, but linesmen have to painstakingly repair each wire they see visibly, pole by pole?

    However, anytime you see new residential construction, the wires are buried.

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