Why Don’t We Bury More Power Lines?

I was wondering if we changed the way we transmitted electricity from high voltage to high current, wouldn’t that make it easier to bury the lines underground thereby mitigating the objection to spoiling the scenery for the new eco-power plants that will be constructed? The Sunrise Powerlink project for San Diego Gas & Electric is having a tough time with this aspect of the project. This is a real shame because I think the Sterling Energy System is the best technology out there. — Terry B., Paso Robles, California

Terry,  Many people believe correctly that burying power lines solves lots of problems like the icing of powerlines and the avoidance of falling tree limbs on windy days that knock down lines. On the other hand, buried power lines make them more susceptable to damage from floods, earthquakes mudslides and can limit how quickly they can be repaired.

But the real limiting factor is that the cost of ditching and burying lines can be more than US $10 per foot. In fact, the state Public Service Commission staff found that burying Louisiana’s utility lines to protect them from hurricane-force winds could cost $70 billion — far too much for the state’s 2 million electricity customers to pay. Plans to go underground often hit a brick wall nationally, because burying existing overhead power lines costs about 10-15 times more than stringing them from poles.

Washington State’s Puget Sound Energy has about 50 percent of the 20,000 miles of power lines underground — about 20 percent for Seattle City Light, mostly in downtown, the University District and about 40 percent of lines in Snohomish County’s Public Utility District are underground. PSE may also use other approaches, such as installing more “tree wire,” a cable with a coating that makes it more resilient during a storm.

In Florida and North Carolina, statewide initiatives to bury power lines would have prompted a rate increase of 80 to 125 percent, according to a report by the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry trade group.

All of that said, the national trend in cities is to bury lines when the city’s infrastructure is being upgraded. Now that billions from the just-passed Stimulus package will be going into upgrading infrastructure, you will probbaly see smarter grids that are buried, at least in cities.

Scott Sklar of the Washington, DC-based, The Stella Group, Ltd. which is a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies. Sklar was also appointed in April 2007 to the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy & Technology (NACEPT) of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is Chair of the Steering Committee of the Sustainable Energy Coalition. He also serves on several clean energy national non-profit Boards of Directors.