Utilities: Buried lines costly, prolong outages

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WASHINGTON – Many residents still in the dark after last Friday’s derecho are calling for what they say is a clear solution to storm-tossed trees blacking out the D.C. area.

Utility companies, however, are not so sure about the benefits of placing power lines underground, and say any advantages of burying the lines would be drowned out by the expense and complication of such a project.

“When you compare the cost of restoration versus the billions and billions of dollars associated with potential undergrounding, it is something that needs to be thought about,” says Jay Gould, BGE vice president. “But at the end of the day, it is a very challenging and costly proposition.”

Maryland State Sen. Jim Rosapepe is asking the state’s Public Service Commission to consider expanding on existing legislation that mandates utility companies bury new power lines.

“The fact of the matter is the Maryland legislature in 1968 required that power lines in new developments be underground,” says Rosapepe, a Democrat representing Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.

PSC regulates utilities in Maryland and is considering Pepco’s request for a rate increase of about $67 million.

Rosapepe says the utilities should bury the power lines for vital networks, and that while the initial investment would be considerable, current conditions aren’t acceptable.

Montgomery County Council Prseident Roger Berliner also tells WTOP he has been for “selective ‘undergrounding’ for some time.”

They aren’t the only ones who feel this way:

Rosapepe wants the commission to study the costs of such a project.

“Whether on balance the savings outweigh the cost or the costs outweigh the savings, that’s exactly what I’m asking the Public Service Commission to do, is do their own study,” he says. “Don’t rely on the power companies.”

But a spokeswoman from one local utility says they have already appraised the cost of burying lines and found the expense is not clearly worth the benefits, which themselves aren’t that clear.

“During a major event like this, we look at overhead lines and say, ‘They are a problem,'” says Dominion Power’s LeHa Anderson. “There are other times when we look at underground (wires) and say, ‘These would have been much easier to repair if they were overhead.'”

In the wake of Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the Virginia State Corporation Commission conducted a study into the cost and benefits of putting power lines underground.

“The cost was astronomical,” Anderson says.

Dominion currently has about 40 percent of its Northern Virginia lines underground, but those have been a hindrance in the past.

An inability to isolate a problem — made easier by looking overhead to see cable faults — further deters companies from putting the lines below ground, Gould says.

Last Thanksgiving, it took four days to identify the source of a power failure in an underground cable failure, says Anderson.

Previous estimates put the cost of burying lines at $1 million per mile, says Baltimore Gas & Electric Vice President Rob Gould, assuming that the utility companies would get permission to dig up property for installation that wasn’t already theirs.

WTOP’s Kate Ryan and Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report. Follow Kate, Paul and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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