May 2021

When a hurricane, wildfire, or other natural disaster causes a widespread power outage, people often question the wisdom of above-ground power lines. The debate over power line placement comes with lists of pros and cons. But one of those cons tends to drown out the others — cost. When people hear that burying power lines could more than double their electric bills, that tends to end the discussion.

UP OR DOWN

Make no mistake about it. Power outages are expensive. In fact, they’re estimated to cost the U.S. $150 billion annually. Wouldn’t burying power lines save some of that money?

It’s true that burying lines underground would protect them from wind, fire, ice, tree branches and motorist accidents. It would also keep poles and wires from getting in the way of the natural scenery.

But, when something goes wrong, finding and repairing a problem up in the air can be a lot easier and faster than locating and digging up the exact spot of an underground malfunction.

Also, underground power lines aren’t completely safe from natural disasters. They’ve been known to get overwhelmed with flooding, while digging or other construction can slice into underground service.

COST VERSUS CONVENIENCE

But it really all boils down to cost. A 2 012 study by the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents big power companies, estimated that burying existing lines would cost between $93,000 and $5 million per mile of line, depending on the type of service and the terrain.

The study also included a survey that found 6 0% of respondents said they would be willing to pay up to 10% more on their energy bills to have their power lines buried. But when told underground lines might double their bills, more than 75% of the survey respondents said “no.”

Converting to underground lines also could mean higher expense to homeowners who might have to install different electrical equipment to accommodate the new connections.

Some people do have underground service. One estimate places that number at about 40% of utility customers. In some cases, utilities are placing new electric service . underground, even though that cost is more expensive as well.

It can cost three times as much to build new underground service compared with overhead lines. About 2 0% of the money spent on new electric service construction of distribution lines goes for underground projects.

While underground service is often impractical, utilities are finding other ways to increase reliability, by using modern smart grid technology and drone patrols, as well as more old-fashioned tree trimming.

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.