Powerless to bring about change: Why DC area utilities should (but won’t) bury their lines

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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As many Washington, D.C. residents suffer through a heat wave without electricity (my power was out from Friday night until about 6 pm Monday), the classic “to bury power lines, or not” debate is front and center. (And, as those who are dealing with 100+ degree weather can probably attest to, power is mildly important to quality of life).

So why aren’t the power lines buried? Dominion, a power utility serving Virginia, warns that burying power lines is expensive. From their website:

In 2005, a study by the Virginia State Corporation Commission found that overhead-to-underground conversion would have “tremendous costs” that would make “a comprehensive statewide effort appear to be unreasonable.”

  • The study, conducted in response to a request from the General Assembly, found the cost of placing existing overhead electric, telephone and cable television lines could approach $94 billion. For electric lines alone, the cost was estimated to be $83.3 billion; the conversion cost per mile was approximately $800,000.
  • A statewide conversion project would impose an additional yearly financial burden of approximately $3,000 per electric customer, the study warned. “The costs would be paid ultimately by consumers, either directly or indirectly, in the form of prices, taxes, or utility rates.”
  • The project would also cause “significant disruptions” for customers and “could take decades to complete,” the SCC study warned.

David Frum argues that money shouldn’t be the only factor in making such decisions:

Costs can only be understood in relation to benefits. As the climate warms, storms and power outages are becoming more common. And as the population ages, power failures become more dangerous. In France, where air conditioning is uncommon, a 2003 heat wave left 10,000 people dead, almost all of them elderly. If burying power lines prevented power outages during the hotter summers ahead, the decision could save many lives.

Doug Mataconis urges caution:

This is a good idea, but I get the impression that it’s not nearly as simple a solution as Frum, and others, think that it is. It would be nice if it were, though.  I’m not saying don’t do it, but I think we need to have a more realistic idea of what we’re talking about undertaking before we move forward.

And the Washington Post puts a damper on the whole thing:

The most thorough local analysis of the question to date was done in a2010 report commissioned by the D.C. Public Service Commission. The consultants determined that undergrounding options would cost anywhere from $1.1 billion to $5.8 billion, depending on how many lines were actually buried.

In their final determination, the consultants recommended burying major “feeder” lines, particularly the most troublesome ones, but in most cases leaving existing above ground household lines in place. They also had another common-sense recommendation: Identify locations where road or utility work is already underway, and bury power lines there, thus saving on excavation, construction and paving costs.

No-brainer, right? Not so much. In the two years since that report was released, the city has reconstructed miles of arterial roads, but it has opted not to bury power lines on those thoroughfares that weren’t already buried.

I’m sure a lot of people would prefer to avoid another power outage like the one being repaired right now. But I’m also sure many of them would balk at the cost of burying power cables. It will be interesting to see if this issues remains relevant, or if we will all just move on … until the next time.

Matt K. Lewis