Debating OverHead vs. Buried Power Lines

November 3, 2011

I have power again, but am still waiting for phone, cable, and internet access to be restored. But the most recent outage, which follows a number of outages of considerable (at least 24 hours and averaging about 4 days) length, has me wondering about power lines. As a lay person, it is easy for me to say ‘just bury the wires’. It would presumably prevent the outages that happen regularly from downed wires and it would be a whole lot nicer looking. I justify this stance having coming from a place where the norm is to have buried wires – even though, in colorado and much of the west, overhanging trees are not a serious concern (as they are here in the East). It all makes little sense to me that where we seem to need buried lines the least is where we have them and where we need them the most is where we do not. Certainly, it is a legacy issue that I think we need to get past.

I was recently listening to this story on NPR and given my predilection to underground wires, I have to admit that I found the guest, Ted Kury unconvincing and unable to make a good argument for NOT burying wires. I sensed that as much as I try to justify my standpoint, he was trying to justify his – neither of us being entirely fact based and reasonable.  But he is the expert and I am not, so I hold him to a different standard. Certainly cost is an issue, but as I delve deeper into the subject — having read this, and this and this, (all articles about power lines and whether to bury them or not)  I have a number of questions that are not addressed by any of these assessments.

First, the quoted cost of a mile of underground wiring is generally stated to be 1 million dollars.  I am sure the people who came up with the number are perfectly intelligent reasonable people, but I have to cry foul.   One million dollars per mile?  Really?  Seems awfully high….I would love to have a good explanation for this.

Further, this is an awfully broad sweep of a number….I can assure you that hook my house us to the huge solar array across the street from me (about a mile away by road) would NOT cost a million dollars. It is a country environment and little disturbance to existing roads and buildings would need to happen.

Second, there is an argument to say that even though the lines are buried as they get closer to delivery points, the main lines that are from the centralized points of power creation are still overhead and always will be.  Ok — but that seems almost irrelevant to this argument – these are not the lines that go down in an ice storm, a hurricane, a tornado, or an early fall snow.  These lines look like the ones in the picture above — note the lack of trees. The point is largely irrelevant and panders to the non-thinkers.  Besides — whose to say that these can’t be buried as well?

Third, and most importantly (as far as I am concerned) is, there seems, to be little discussion of two increasing factors.  Climate change and the increasing decentralized shift in our electrical infrastructure.

Only the most died in the wool contrarians among us can still argue that climate change is not happening.   Climate change is causing all sorts of weather that is unexpected.  Hundred year floods are happening every few years, major storms are becoming a regular occurrence, and around the world, the metrics on which all sorts of cost benefit analysis’ are based on have become inaccurate.  The cost of major outages is huge, and if they happen once every ten years vs once every other year (as recently in New England) the cost vs benefit argument changes dramatically.  When are these assessments going to start acknowledging the reality of our changing world?

Also, as we smartly start to implement a varied and diversified energy production strategy (solar, wind, etc), we are quickly shifting from a centralized grid (where power generation is localized to the area it supplies and is provided by large single sources) to a decentralized grid.  Small producers are now providing a two way street and are adding to the grid by generating power with solar arrays on individual homes, and wind farms are often located far away from the centers that they serve.  Power now needs to travel far, and the old system that resembles a highway system with major arteries narrowing down to country roads doesn’t seem ideal.  Increasingly there are major solar (power) installations on those country roads and poor infrastructure to get the power to the people who can use it.  We need a real grid — that I suspect might include a few more buried lines.

I am no expert on this sort of thing, and would love to hear from you if you are…..but I am a person who can spot a non-sensical and illogical load of poo when I see one and the old fashioned arguments that overhead power lines are the right thing for our modern and changing times is one that I am not so sure applies anymore.  What do you know about this?  Lets discuss….

image: Gabriel Allon

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  1. Gardentina says:

    A year ago came to the conclusion that, love them or hate them, the power lines have permanently altered the landscape as we know it. A local bank has a mural of the early beginnings of the town from close to 100 years ago. The same telephone pole juts out from the street corner in the mural as it does today. While utility poles can be mundane, they are also a unique connection between us and the generations before us. Hmm, haven’t heard of any filings to preserve historic telephone poles…. Let’s not give out any ideas?!….

  2. M says:

    Absolutely agree with YOU and the common sense of buried power lines! Those making the decisions on keeping above ground power lines seem stuck in a very old fashioned way of thinking and are putting inaccurate dollar figures as their primary argument. Cost benefit analysis needs to be done by people who have the real current facts,and not just an agenda rationalize keeping overhead power lines….

  3. greenwords says:

    The houses in our street and the streets immediately surrounding us are ~ 20 years old or less and we have buried power lines – I’m so glad that whoever planned this area did things that way. Up on the main road the power lines are above ground, and it seems like every time there’s a big storm (which is frequently during our wet season in the sub-tropics) something happens. Buried power lines are awesome!

  4. Julia Radford says:

    Rochelle, earlier in the week I was thinking the same thing. It doesn’t make sense having overhead power lines, but if we’re going to have them you would think they would do a better job of clearing the area near the lines.

  5. Jenna says:

    I thought that Concord, MA has already started an underground project via their own municipal lighting plant. I agree with you completely.

    • rochelle says:

      Jenna- I think you are right. my husband works with ppl that live in concord and they faired very well in the storm — because of the local power company….unfortunately, harvard has no such thing….a great idea though!

  6. Heidi says:

    Where I’m from, power lines are much more often buried…and taxes are much lower, too. My explanation for the $1 million figure would be simple: graft. That said, hundred-year floods are going to occur almost every year somewhere in the United States. And due to the increasing levels of impermeable surfaces in river basins, then they will be occurring with increasing frequency, especially depending on storm water management procedures and river and levee management procedures. Town A upstream constructs dikes to prevent minor flooding. This sends simply massive amounts of water downstream to drown Town B, which has no such protection. Town B now has the worst flood in recorded history without more water going through the river system than there had been on a number of other occasions. I think you’re not quite understanding the statistics or the meaning of the phrase “hundred-year flood,” what the hundred-year floodplain means, or how human intervention to save one area can devastate another. In the same way, people are screaming that climate change is causing Louisiana to sink. Yeah, just like climate change is causing volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes. What’s happening to Louisiana is that the drastic flood measures taken along the Mississippi are causing there to be much less silt than there had been before to be deposited in the Louisiana delta, and like many deltas, the earth there is not dense at all because most of it’s so recent, so left to its own devices, it will settle. A lot. Really, with Louisiana, you have two choices: Deal with periodic flooding, sometimes catastrophic, or watch a good portion of the state sloooooowly sink beneath the waves. We’re choosing the second. I guess a slow, certain death is less unsettling than a constant fear of serious damage.

    Issues with powerlines going out is largely an issue of management of the trees along powerlines. Recently in the mid-atlantic, companies got slapped with very high fines for being lax about tree trimming. A year-long program to get back on track, and now the power never goes out on a wide scale even with heavy storms. Magic.

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