"Should Utilities Be Required to Bury Power Lines to Protect Them?"
The Wall Street Journal
Millions of homes and businesses in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York were left in the dark for weeks after superstorm Sandy ravaged the area in October, prompting renewed questions about whether utilities should be forced to relocate power lines underground to keep them safer.
Logical? Yes. But also very costly.
Those who favor power-line burial say it's worth the expense. They believe climate change is going to bring bigger and more violent storms to the U.S., and they say our cities can't afford to be without power for weeks on end. If we don't demand underground power, they say, we'll never get it.
Opponents argue that there are easier and more cost-effective ways to prevent blackouts from storms.
They believe decisions about burying power lines should be made on a case-by-case basis by utilities and regulators. Otherwise, they say, consumers could end up paying more without getting a commensurate increase in reliability.
Roger Anderson argues in favor of requiring utilities to put power lines underground. He is senior research scientist at the Center for Computational Learning Systems of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, and at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of the Earth Institute, both at Columbia University in New York. Making the opposing case is Theodore J. Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida's Public Utility Research Center.
Yes: It May Be Costly, but Not As Costly as Business as UsualBy Roger Anderson
Although some utilities said it was the most damaging storm ever to test them, it isn't the first time and it won't be the last that a major weather event wreaks havoc on our power grid. Why? Because every time a storm takes out overhead power, utilities almost always replace the destroyed poles, transformers and power lines in exactly the same places, with exactly the same technologies that were just destroyed by high winds and falling trees.
The reason is always the same: cost. Utilities quote the same economic analyses year after year, in state after state, that say relocating power lines underground to make them less vulnerable to damage would be far too expensive for their customers—who ultimately pay the entire cost of restoration of electric service. Yet, most of these economic models don't take into account the cost to those same customers of lost business, lost property, lost lives from prolonged blackouts after bad storms. Sandy left more than 8.5 million customers without power in 16 states.
The truth is, most of the outages—and a lot of misery—that occurred after Sandy could have been avoided if more power lines had been underground.
An Integrated Solution
After the great blizzard of 1888 destroyed the maze of wires above Manhattan, the lines were relocated underground—and at great cost at the time of that decision. Just like that, blackouts plummeted. Today, the reliability of the utility that serves that area, Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, is estimated to be 10 times the national average.
Granted, moving power lines underground won't protect them from all threats. That's why power-line burial needs to be part of an integrated solution that includes the construction, wherever possible, of sea walls and subway flood gates. Keeping trees trimmed and using electrical poles made of stronger material are good steps to take in the interim, but they aren't a long-term solution to preventing storm-related blackouts.
My challenge to all of those arguing that it is too costly to bury power lines and that underground infrastructure is too difficult to repair: How long did it take to return underground power after Sandy (about three days or so in most cases) versus overhead power (two to 12 weeks and more in some places)? Clearly, the reduced accessibility of underground lines hasn't stopped crews from completing repairs quickly in past storms in New York City.
Stakes Are High
Many scientists are predicting that climate change will bring more frequent and ferocious storms to our shores.
Yet with the exception of Con Ed—which is proposing to bury more power lines—most electric utilities aren't considering upgrading their above-ground technologies much beyond smarter meters. Historically, utilities have been late to new technologies, even those that their suppliers champion. General Electric Co. and Siemens AG (the old Westinghouse) were leaders in adopting lean management, smart systems, integrated solutions and machine learning, technologies that have only just arrived in the utility world. So it is natural that if we leave power-line burial decisions to local utilities, same-old, same-old will dominate.
We must demand underground power and other climate-proof infrastructure nationwide. The price to our national economic well-being of business as usual is too high.
Dr. Anderson is senior research scientist at the Center for Computational Learning Systems of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, and at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of the Earth Institute, both at Columbia University in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.
No: Too Often, It Would Be a Waste of Consumers' Dollars
By Theodore J. Kury
While power-line burial may be a cost-effective way to prevent blackouts in some areas, it isn't in others, which is why such decisions should be left to those who know and understand the challenges best: local utilities and their regulators.
There are two major reasons why moving electrical wires underground isn't the panacea many people think it is.
Costs vs. Benefits
First, it is a significant capital expense. A rule of thumb is roughly $1 million per mile, but the particular geography or population density of an area can halve this cost or triple it. Since this is an investment that must be repaid by electricity consumers, it is crucial that they receive an increase in the quality of service commensurate with the cost. The utility and its regulator are staffed with professionals trained to make that kind of assessment.
In 2003, the state regulator and electric utilities in North Carolina looked into relocating the state's power lines underground and concluded that it would take 25 years and increase electricity prices by 125%. All parties agreed that the consumer wouldn't receive fair value for that price increase, and the project was scrapped.
A 2010 study of a portion of the District of Columbia's electricity system for the Public Service Commission reviewed 16 reports from eight states that studied "undergrounding" from 2000 to 2009. None of those reports identified a quantifiable net benefit from relocating existing power lines systemwide. The study also found that the marginal costs of moving parts of D.C.'s system underground varied widely. It concluded that a strategic $1.1 billion investment (in 2006 dollars) could improve the reliability for 65% of the customers in the project area, but an additional $4.7 billion would be needed for the remaining 35% to see any benefit.
If the marginal value that a customer receives for increased reliability is less than the marginal cost required to increase reliability for that customer, then a systemwide relocation of lines would likely lead to wasted resources.
A good cost-benefit analysis should factor in the customer cost of outages, and the ones I cite do. They also must take into account that moving electrical lines underground makes routine maintenance of the system more difficult, and thus more expensive. Further, the reduced accessibility can make it more difficult to fix outages when they do occur, often prolonging their duration. This may not have been the case after superstorm Sandy, since other factors play into repair times, but it is the case on average, all else being equal.
Shifting the Risk
Second, moving power lines underground doesn't necessarily make them less vulnerable to storms. Those who support power-line burial because they believe bigger, more frequent storms are inevitable due to climate change need to keep this in mind.
Relocating power lines may mitigate some damage from wind events, principally flying debris and falling trees, but there are other things utilities can do to accomplish that. Tree trimming and replacing traditional wood poles with steel, concrete or composite ones, or reinforcing existing poles with guy wires, may be nearly as effective as moving infrastructure underground, but at a fraction of the cost. Further, burying power lines increases the risk of damage from corrosive storm surge and flooding, so in areas where that is a concern, customers may actually experience more outages if electrical infrastructure is underground.
Let local-distribution utilities and their regulators make power-line burial decisions on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, electricity consumers could end up paying more and getting less.
Mr. Kury is director of energy studies at the University of Florida's Public Utility Research Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.