Greater Greater Washington

What will it cost to bury power lines?

Should more of the power lines in the region be underground? That's a question many are asking as many residents of DC, Maryland, and Virginia remain without power over 3 days after a storm and may not get it back for days more. Most, but not all, neighborhoods in DC with underground lines never lost power.


Photo by hellomarkers! on Flickr.

Mayor Gray thinks it's worth talking about. He said, "People are fed up with power outages. We need a game-changer," Mike DeBonis reports in the Post.

The problem is that burying lines is very expensive. But it's not clear how expensive, because most of the estimates come from the utilities, and Pepco, at least, doesn't have a lot of credibility on this.

When DDOT rebuilt the streetscape along Brookland's 12th Street in 2008-2009, residents asked to have the lines put underground, but Pepco cited a cost that seems wildly high. Without better and independent information, it's hard to have a conversation about burying lines.

Pepco gives very high cost estimates

Residents listed burying the lines as a top priority during early public meetings for the project. The lines are unsightly, and Pepco would often truncate the street's trees to keep them from disrupting lines. Plus, putting the lines underground would reduce the change of trees falling on the lines and knocking out power.

Pepco told DDOT that it would cost $60 million to bury the lines along 12th. Plus, DDOT then-spokesperson Karyn LeBlanc said in an August 2008 email, Pepco rents space on its poles to telecommunication utilities as well, and burying the lines would require moving those wires.

LeBlanc added,

Each property that currently receives service from an overhead connection would need to be "rewired" to accept service from the newly undergrounded connection. This is a cost that would not be burdened to the utility but rather to the property owner. The current cost estimate is $15,000 per property and again that is just for the electrical service. The other communication lines would also need to be "rewired." All these estimated costs would, of course, increase as costs for materials continue to increase.
Are these estimates reasonable?

At DDOT oversight hearings at the time, residents and council staff found comparable cost estimates from other jurisdictions that were putting lines underground. Scenic America said that burying the wires costs $500,000 to $3 million per mile. Since the project covered one mile of street, that means the estimate differ by a factor of 20 to 120.

Information from an undergrounding project in San Francisco put the cost to move a property's connection at $1,500 to $2,000 per property, not $15,000.

These costs are still not small, but they might have been achievable. DDOT had $5.5 million in the project budget left over for miscellaneous streetscape tasks, which could have gone toward wires, but it was too late to make it happen at that point.

More importantly, this reveals a credibility gap for Pepco. The utility wasn't really interested in putting lines underground, so it seems it threw out a very high estimate.

One streetscape won't solve storm reliability

Underground wires on 12th Street could have saved businesses there from losing power, but wouldn't have done much for a broader area. To really combat outages, Pepco would need to bury its main trunk lines.

According to DeBonis, Pepco does want to bury two lines, on Oregon Avenue NW along Rock Creek and on Michigan Avenue NE, near Brookland. It's offered to do this as part of a rate increase currently before the Public Service Commission (PSC); Mayor Gray and other officials today said that maybe the utility doesn't deserve to get its rate hike given what's happened this week.

One thing is clear; unless the PSC starts pushing Pepco hard, wires won't go underground. To the utility, there's no incentive to invest in the cost of expensive infrastructure that's more reliable, or just having more crews on hand to make repairs. As a for-profit company with fixed rates, their only incentive is to keep costs low, and that means skimping on reliability.

The PSC will have to push Pepco harderif the District can get members confirmed who want to do so. It would help get the discussion going if there were independent, more realiable estimates for costs. We just can't trust Pepco or industry groups whose incentives don't line up with the general public.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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Any idea how much it cost to bury the lines in the historical parts of town? When did this happen?

by goldfish on Jul 3, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

if people are worried about what line maintenance does to trees, just wait until they see what chopping through the roots does.

by Mike on Jul 3, 2012 12:36 pm • linkreport

PEPCO's cost estimates are way high, but consider the cost in lost productivity from having 1/3 of the area out of power for several weeks a year.

by rlchurch on Jul 3, 2012 12:52 pm • linkreport

There might be another option. Is it possible to improve the grid above ground? Put in more interconnections so power can be rerouted around issues. My grandmother's house has no power but the street behind her does have power. What if there were interconnections and more ways to segment the zones so even though some areas of her street have downed wired, that she could have power since she has no downed wires? I think this one of the benefits of the smart grid, greater interconnections allowing greater flexibility and reliability. Along with that, are their any energy and cost efficient ways to produce power locally in smaller scale power plants in case major routes from power plants went down? is there any energy usage benefit from having power that travels less distance? I assume there is some loss in transmission.

by Steve on Jul 3, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

How is it possible that there is no clear cost for burying lines? Lies have been buried. Can someone just look at the PO?

by Jasper on Jul 3, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

If Mayor Gray wants a "game changer" on this, how about asking Congress or even his friend President Obama, to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act for this project.

by dcrepublican on Jul 3, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

@Jasper

We just need more of these http://www.thinkgeek.com/stuff/41/wec.shtml Just don't get between the beams.

4/1 posting from ThinkGeek a number of years back

by Steve on Jul 3, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

Can I just point out that "the derecho problem", which involves very large numbers of people with no service for a long time after a severe storm, is just really expensive to solve?

You can solve it by burying lines, which is really expensive (1500 miles or road in DC gives a rough $.75-4.5 billion cost using the Scenic america estimate, and excluding connections). You could solve it by hiring way more utility workers during Derecho season or by giving everyone a generator, both of which would also be very expensive, .

Days long outages are not the result of interruptions to major conduits, so burying a few major lines won't do much about a problem like this. We have these outages because lots of lines are down, and it takes time and money to fix lots of lines. If we could forecast a Derecho the way we forecast hurricanes then we could better prepare utilities, but it doesn't sound like that's easy to do.

by Mike on Jul 3, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

Consider: ~$350 worth of groceries thrown out from non-powered refrigerators x 1M customers = $350M cost each time this happens. We're paying for it already, but getting nothing for it.

by Matt Glazewski on Jul 3, 2012 1:16 pm • linkreport

I love how everyone is all of a sudden an expert on the cost of burying utilities.

I worked for a development company in the late 90's doing what the urbanists call "the devils work" in building subdivisions in Prince William County, and it cost just under 2 million a mile then to bury power (just power), and this was in PWC where there was nothing in the way.

Also, that cost in SF you reference (1500-2000) per house was highly misleading, It was simply the cost of undergrounding the utility from the street to the house. The City (yea high taxes)was picking up nearly the full cost of actually burying the utility in the ROW, with the utility picking up the rest, paid for via a small tax already in the customers bill for undergrounding, so ~1500 per house wasn't the cost to bury it.

The task force already identified the cost to bury the cities remaining overhead power lines at 4 billion. Lets assume they were off by a factor or nearly 4 and it only costs one billion. Issue is, 70% of the cities electrical customers already have underground service, so you are spending 1 billion for 30% of the city.

Will you agree to eat a $100 dollar a month surcharge on your power bill for the next 10 years to pay for it? Good luck with that.

And who is paying to bury the cable line and phone lines on those poles too? Now you are going to eat massive surcharges on your phone and cable service to pay for that as well.

And as someone mentioned above, people get apoplectic whenever Pepco tries to trim the trees. I wonder their reaction when Pepco has to start trenching through tree roots killing every tree along the street they come to?

by power on Jul 3, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

Two things:

Whatever the cost is, it's going to be expensive. I'll bet the utilities will do it, if someone else pays for it. David Levinson did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations on a willingness to pay (have the ratepayers pay a premium for underground lines) and what the payback time would be.

http://blog.lib.umn.edu/levin031/transportationist/2012/07/underground-utilities.html

I would need to avoid 1562 days of blackout at $0.10 per hour to justify this on blackout avoidance. (In other words, ignoring discounting, if I can avoid 1 blackout day per year, it would take 1562 years to pay back). Obviously I am probably willing to pay more (reducing the payback time), I might even pay $100 per blackout day in extreme cases (maybe the cost of a hotel stay), but that still requires a 37.5 year payback, which is far more than most people would be willing to tolerate. Given the differences in reliability between above and below ground, undergrounding is not economically justified as retrofit for the purposes of continuous electricity unless power outages get much worse.

His assumptions were based on a suburban/single family detached home layout and costs - which gets to the second point, raised by Matt Yglesias:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/07/02/tall_buildings_prevent_power_outages.html

Where I live downtown the power lines are buried, so we haven't had a problem. So why aren't power lines buried everywhere?

The answer is pretty simple: It's expensive. But where you have a high population density it becomes much more economical to provide a higher-cost, higher-quality form of infrastructure...

It's not cost-effective in a lower density setting. The numbers are better in higher density settings.

by Alex B. on Jul 3, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

power: Thanks for the info.

The San Francisco one was about the individual property part and not the full line. Pepco said it would be $15,000 just to hook up each house to the newly udnergroudned line, plus $60 million to bury the line. The San Francisco number of $1500-2000 per house is comparing it to the $15,000, not to the cost of the full line.

by David Alpert on Jul 3, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

It's not cost-effective in a lower density setting. The numbers are better in higher density settings.

While that's probably true, there's plenty of lower density settings where utilities are buried. Indeed, many of the newer exurban neighborhoods have buried utilities despite lower densities than my Arlington neighborhood.

The problem really is the first issue you noted, that retrofitting existing utilities doesn't provide enough extra value -- even with the improved reliability and reduced maintenance -- to justify the extra cost of burying the lines.

by Chief on Jul 3, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

Why not re-structure the utility's rate contract such that it has a financial incentive to ensure reliability? Something like "we'll allow you to raise rates by X, but in exchange you must pro-rate customer's utility bills by Y for every hour they are without power". Isn't that in everyone's best interest and puts those "market forces" to work for us all?

by Chris Slatt on Jul 3, 2012 1:37 pm • linkreport

The real problem is that Pepco has very little incentive to make the system reliable. But that problem is easily fixed. Give Pepco a rate increase, but in return, make them pay a significant fine per hour per housing unit that is without power. With that incentive in place, they'll do a lot more to keep the lights on.

by Rob on Jul 3, 2012 1:37 pm • linkreport

Another solution would be for each property to generate its own electricity and be "off the grid". I have seen numerous houses throughout NW that have solar panels on the roof. I'm not sure how much energy they provide, but I'm guessing it's at least enough to keep a fridge running.

Of course there is absolutely no incentive for a for-profit utility provider like Pepco to promote this, and installing solar panels on one's roof is a very expensive endeavour, even with tax credits. Doing more to help property owners offset the cost of off-the-grid power generation would go a long way in addressing the region's power reliability issues.

by Rebecca on Jul 3, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

@Chief

While that's probably true, there's plenty of lower density settings where utilities are buried. Indeed, many of the newer exurban neighborhoods have buried utilities despite lower densities than my Arlington neighborhood.

True, but irrelevant. Those utilities were likely buried by law or by rule. Either way, it was expensive to do so. That cost was borne by someone, and just because it was done doesn't mean it was cost-effective to do so. As 'power' noted above, the city would be the one picking up the tab for it, not the utility.

@Chris Slatt

Why not re-structure the utility's rate contract such that it has a financial incentive to ensure reliability? Something like "we'll allow you to raise rates by X, but in exchange you must pro-rate customer's utility bills by Y for every hour they are without power". Isn't that in everyone's best interest and puts those "market forces" to work for us all?

Sure, but that doesn't change the underlying cost effectiveness. As noted in my first link above, the payback time for the investment in underground lines for low-density areas is very long - meaning that a utility would rather risk it and take the hit.

by Alex B. on Jul 3, 2012 1:50 pm • linkreport

@Power: I think you're being a little hyperbolic with your numbers. $100 per month, for 12 month, for 10 years, for 600,000 customers (current DC population) is $7.2B ... which is 7 times your $1B estimate.

Thus, you should have asked "Will you agree to eat a $14 dollar a month surcharge on your power bill for the next 10 years to pay for it?"

Granted, I'm not taking into account the time value or money, inflationary costs of product, or the increase in DC's population over time... but I felt that it was worth putting the numbers in a little better perspective.

In a situation like this, a shared sacrifice for the greater good may not be such a bad idea but I agree that people need to recognize the cost they will need to incur for this to happen. In the long run though, it will benefit both Pepco and residents via a reduction in disruptions of service and reduced maintenance costs.

by Energy on Jul 3, 2012 1:50 pm • linkreport

For all y'all so worked up about trenching:
1) Outside of the very built up areas there is this thing called "Directional Drilling" you might want to look into. I watched a municipal utility bury a majority of its network in a month using this. It's cheap and easy. And it works in pre-built environments.
2) Can someone point to a cost estimate of putting lines underground that doesn't come from Pepco's very old and biased study?
3) Even if trenching is used, the damage to the trees is a one-time hit. Not the half-baked semi-annual topiary we get now. Those trees are trimmed to fail in a wind storm.
4) Before it comes up again, yes I do think Pepco could learn to co-ordinate with other utilities and the city to bury lines when other street work is being done. It points to nothing but Pepco's self-importance and immaturity that they claim it's too hard to play well with others.

by Alger on Jul 3, 2012 2:02 pm • linkreport

@Energy

You are also not taking into account cohabitation. Maybe it's an extra $100 per month for you, but for a group house or family, you're getting towards 5K per year.

by Mike on Jul 3, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

I have to think that operational cost savings of reduced tree trimming and storm recovery would have to offset at least part of the capital cost of burying the line.

by Kevin Diffily on Jul 3, 2012 2:29 pm • linkreport

RE: Mike's point, does the "one million customers" number refer to households or people? I always thought it was households.

Personally I think the power reliability could get a lot better without putting lines underground. It also seems like the other utilities are doing a better job at restoring power than Pepco (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/07/outage-outrage-the-politics-of-electricity/259314/).

by MLD on Jul 3, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

Where I live in DC the power lines are buried, but not the cable and telephone lines. The power never goes out, but the cable and telephone/DSL will. The poles for cable and telephone are not on the street side either, they are in the alleys were there are less trees or no trees. I've never been without power. I think in the long run the capital cost of burying them are well worth it.

by dc denizen on Jul 3, 2012 2:36 pm • linkreport

Energy,

Umm, not every resident is a customer. Pepco has 225K customer accounts in the District, including residential and commercial. Your numbers don't put anything into perspective.

And as I said above, 70% of those DC customers already have underground power, leaving about ~70K DC pepco customers with above ground power, which comes out to about ~850 million.

by Power on Jul 3, 2012 2:38 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't be surprised if hundreds of thousands of people in this area who have underground lines lost power.

by selxic on Jul 3, 2012 2:42 pm • linkreport

Pepco has never to my knowledge looked into the new horizontal directional drilling technologies that could easily bury existing lines for much less money. (Yes, thank the oil and gas industry for funding this development!)

Such an approach would also save cutting through tree roots and weakening existing street trees.

by drillbabydrill on Jul 3, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

As a few others have noted, we shouldn't prescribe a solution to power companies but rather set targets for reliability that they are encouraged to meet through a system of penalties and/or bonuses. Then the power company can be left to determine the best way to meet those targets (by burying lines or taking other measures to increase reliability or speed repairs).

by Falls Church on Jul 3, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

Another reason to set reliability targets rather than prescribe specific tactics -- if there's some cheapo way to bury some power lines but without providing much benefit in reliability, I'm sure PEPCO will find it.

by Falls Church on Jul 3, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

@Power

According to the count on Pepco's outage map, they have 792,702 customers. I'm pretty sure this is accurate as these numbers are far below resident populations for the Pepco service area (Montgomery, DC, and Prince George's)

http://www.pepco.com/home/emergency/maps/stormcenter/

by rsn on Jul 3, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

@Power,

Sorry misread your post - my bad.

by rsn on Jul 3, 2012 2:53 pm • linkreport

AT&T just buried their new "Fiber line" in Potomac and Rockville. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Verizon, Pepco, etc to bury their wires as well.

by Jamie on Jul 3, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

After a devastating and lengthy storm caused power outage in Atlanta, the same arguement was brought up to Georgia Power...their response: too costly for them. Nothing about the inconvenience or hardship caused to their cusotmers.

by Nancy in Atlanta on Jul 3, 2012 3:36 pm • linkreport

Of course, once we spend the money on burying all the power lines -- whatever the cost -- we'll face a different set of reliability problems from water damage during heavy rain events, damage during the next earthquake, and who knows what else. And I can't imagine repairs will be as quick or as easy once all the lines are buried.

by Arl Fan on Jul 3, 2012 3:39 pm • linkreport

While burying utility lines generally improves reliability it is not a panacea- no one here has mentioned the exploding manholes from a few years back. Underground infrastructure can and does suffer from it's own problems. Repairing underground service is very disruptive- think of the M Street project a few years ago.

I like the idea of reliability targets, however aren't force majeure events such as weather generally excluded?

by wr on Jul 3, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

@rsn: Thanks for the numbers.

@power: You're incorrect on two points here. First of all, RSN has corrected your customer numbers. Second, although DC is a deregulated market, it is still Pepco who owns the transmission lines. Thus, they collect fees from EVERYONE in the District. So yes... my number DO in fact, put things into perspective.

Please use math and not hyperbolic responses to make your points and if you're going to quote numbers (e.g. 70/30)... please provide references.

by Energy on Jul 3, 2012 4:04 pm • linkreport

@ Arl Fan:we'll face a different set of reliability problems from water damage during heavy rain events, damage during the next earthquake

Remind me about the massive power outages of during TS Lee, Snowmagedon, the Earthquake and 9/11? Cuz I don't remember those. I remember swept away bridges, snowloaded roads, silly panic and a hole in the Pentagon.... Am I wrong?

@ wr:Repairing underground service is very disruptive- think of the M Street project a few years ago.

Yeah, that was once in a century sewer work. But you're right. Let's get rid of the sewer system because it's hard to maintain.

by Jasper on Jul 3, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

@power: Pepco's fact sheet lists 255K customers ... but this does not delineate distribution vs electricity. Pepco owns distribution in DC. That means, if you're a customer of another energy provider, you're still paying Pepco for the distribution of that energy.

Here's the fact sheet (undated): http://www.pepco.com/_res/documents/PEPCO_DC_LEG_FACT_SHEET.pdf
Here's the list of companies handling distribution in the world (DC's is PEPCO): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electricity_distribution_companies_by_country

by Energy on Jul 3, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

There was a lot more going on than 100 year sewer work. There was a series of manhole explosions which PEPCO initially tried to blame on gas leaks from Washington Gas. That didn't pan out.

My point wasn't that we shouldn't put infrastructure underground. Alas, I do not live in a black and white world. The point was a bit subtler- that doing such work isn't a panacea.

by wr on Jul 3, 2012 4:22 pm • linkreport

People are obviously frustrated by the power outages, but burying the wires seems as much of a waste to me as buying Buffalo's snow plows for the once in a generation blizzard. Once everyone gets their power back their desire to pay for the underground wires will dissipate.

An besides, underground wires have their own issues. I used to get 3-4 power outages a summer due to underground transformers shorting out. And it's more expensive and time consuming to fix them.

The emotions being expressed right now are a bit like the way people feel when on a delayed metro train. Sure there are reasonable grievances, but when you're still in the fits of rage, you lose perspective.

by TM on Jul 3, 2012 4:23 pm • linkreport

@Mike Can I just point out that "the derecho problem", which involves very large numbers of people with no service for a long time after a severe storm, is just really expensive to solve?

You may. Can I point out that losses due to power outages caused by the derecho and fallen power lines (which includes some fatalities) and the costs of repairs are also really expensive?

@AlexB, The answer is pretty simple: It's expensive. Well, Yglesias is wrong. The reason the power lines are buried is the same reason why the streetcar lines have had troubles - above ground lines are illegal. That's the reason.

I'll also add that the Power Company's valuation is limited. It doesn't include the value of trees that have to be removed/trimmed back to preserve above ground lines. And it doesn't include aesthetic considerations. And it doesn't consider safety considerations (people do get electrocuted by fallen lines). And there are probably others. Perhaps that's where you were going, but I wanted to make it explicit. There are reasons for the government to pitch in on this.

@Chris Slatt - Bingo. That's not a full solution, because of what I wrote above. But that's one part of it.

by David C on Jul 3, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

Silly question:

If the cables break when a tree falls on them, then why not design the cables to unplug instead? If a tree falls on a wire, the wire disconnects instead of breaks, tripping a breaker in the process. Then all that the work crew does is climb a ladder with the cable in hand, plug the end back in, and reset the switch.

by Tom on Jul 3, 2012 5:35 pm • linkreport

Well, Yglesias is wrong. The reason the power lines are buried is the same reason why the streetcar lines have had troubles - above ground lines are illegal. That's the reason.

Well, sort of. Are above-ground lines illegal in Silver Spring or Bethesda?

Either way, his basic point stands. Burying lines is expensive. Mandating that they are buried requires that someone bear that cost. Building more densely helps spread that cost among more rate payers.

I don't think he was making a historical point about why DC's lines are buried, since buried lines in big cities and downtown areas are quite common. But, if you want to bury lines right now, how would you pay for it? Like everything else, dense development offers efficiencies in infrastructure.

by Alex B. on Jul 3, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

Are above-ground lines illegal in Silver Spring or Bethesda?

Does Yglesias live there? He was talking about where he lives. I think he lives in DC. But the point is probably correct. It's the same reason that people who live in dense areas got their power back first - if PEPCO restores those lines first, they get power back to more customers faster.

by David C on Jul 3, 2012 6:03 pm • linkreport

Yeah, the DDOT estimates to move a customer's connection are way too high. I'm looking to replace the 60 amp main line into an old house with a modern one, which involves coordination with Pepco and all--and even with a new circuit breaker and a ton of interior electrical work included, the estimates are coming in at $2,000, maybe $3,000. Nowhere close to ten or fifteen thousand.

by Gray on Jul 3, 2012 6:08 pm • linkreport

"And it doesn't include aesthetic considerations. And it doesn't consider safety considerations (people do get electrocuted by fallen lines)."

Exactly (real or imagined fear of EMF radiation being another concern), I'm surprised it took so long for someone to mention it - the aesthetic/safety value has to be considered, both for quality of life and the increased property value/tax revenue that comes with it. Over the lifespan of the investment, I'm sure it's not an insignificant return, at least in denser areas. How much is the value of a house/apartment hurt by being surrounded by transmission lines and poles?

by jag on Jul 3, 2012 6:17 pm • linkreport

Haven't read other comments, so unsure if any of this has been dabbled upon... but tossing on my engineer hat here's a whole bunch of info to consider:

Yes, trees are a *big* problem for overhead utilities. We have a thick tree canopy in the DC area... the problem is that we, the people, want it all: we want the shade and aesthetic of trees, we want electricity to power our modern lifestyle, we want to limit our use of scarce land and small lots, and we don't want to spend a lot of money. All of these come into stark conflict... we need to recognise that we make a collective trade-off when we decide we'd like well-grown street trees but don't want to pay the cost of burying our utilities.

Burying utilities is *very* expensive, largely attributable to the costs of construction itself, unforeseen delays to already-buried unmarked infrastructure, and general coordination between a myriad of agencies.

On the construction end: costs can vary greatly depending on construction circumstances. If it's a brand new corridor without traffic of any kind and no other obstacles, with excavation already occuring for some other development purpose -- then with due planning it's relatively cheap to bury utilities... it just requires advance coordination. This can be easier said then done, however, in that sometimes utilities don't get invited to meetings until too late... or other times when they *are* invited early enough: they don't always show up.

On the other hand: costs can drastically increase when working within traffic can drastically increases costs, if terrain or other conflicts necessitate deeper and deeper excavations, or if there are other utilities near to the excavations. One particular problem particularly common to the northeast is unmarked infrastructure in the form of old utilities. More often than not they're abandoned, but it still takes further evaluation to confirm that they are not in use before a crew cracks them apart. And for those that *are* in use... as happened to me when I was living in College Park: that active electrical line caused quite a spark to the work crews and cut power to my tower for several days.

Another problem with unmarked infrastructure a bit more local to DC is in the form of utility lines that are *intentionally* unmarked. I've come across quite a few lines in my projects which prompted the Secret Service to show up whilst a bunch of engineers were standing dumbfounded, holding our plan sets, trying to figure out what we just found. Other lines have prompted other various agencies to show up... and sometimes we know a telecommunications line is active but we can't figure out whose it is. Security agencies simply do not disclose their utilities.

Then there's the issue of limited space -- particularly in urbanising areas -- as there's only so much room to bury underground utilities, particularly given that you don't want a sewer line near your fresh water line since a leak in a sewer line can be rather gross (putting it lightly). You don't want your water line really near anything since some ruptures can be rather powerful, and similarly gas lines can be explosive. Utilities aren't too fond of being near another... rather: it's not that they don't necessarily mind being near others; they just don't want others near them because they're afraid of being liable for damage to other utilities in case of maintenance error or disaster.

One option is stacking: but that gets complicated quickly by utilities not necessarily wanting to be near one another. And if they can agree on stacking in principle: next comes the question of who's on top. In general the dry utilities (electric, telecoms) would be on top; wet utilities (water, sewer) on bottom... but the latter can rightly complain that they have vastly more expense at excavating to maintain their lines than the other utilities do. What is their incentive to stack if they have to be on bottom; as opposed to just doing their own thing elsewhere in the right-of-way?

Another option is to put utilities into maintenance tunnels: easing the access issue. But the problem here is who owns & maintains the tunnel? Who controls its access, keeps it secure, and accepts liability? A public agency would likely assume all of these roles, permitting utility companies access, establishing liability agreements, and taking in fees from utility companies to cover capital costs as well as those of security, operations, maintenance. But as with anything: it takes a lot of time to bring together multiple agencies -- especially when ever-limited funding is involved with each stakeholder.

by Bossi on Jul 3, 2012 6:53 pm • linkreport

Instead of debating burying lines, lets make the incentives for Pepco align with ours. As it is, when there is a power outage Pepco gets extra consideration because it was not selling us electricity for the period the power was out. Kinda dulls the incentive to get it fixed quickly.
Pepco also bears no costs for failure to provide a service.

How about we have a system where Pepco must pay us a certain amount for outages, or permit us to enter into a contract with such an outage insurance system. Pepco will then determine the best way to save itself money.

Another item is distributed power. Our current policies favor centralized power generation. Utilities do not like having lots of small providers, which mess with their planning. At the same time, distributed power is good for consumer reliability in the face of catastrophic events. It also allows consumers to save money. Here, again, the problem is partly that the regulators focus on what is good for Pepco, and less on the customer.

by SJE on Jul 3, 2012 8:11 pm • linkreport

@ SJE:Pepco will then determine the best way to save itself money.

Easy. Charge more per kWh. Look, Pepco makes its money from its customers. When you push extra cost on them, one way or another, they will get that money back from their customers.

Also, it's all fine that burying power is expensive, but how did the rest of the world get it done then? We're here in the capital of the richest country in the world. Why can't we afford something that a lot of others have? One answer: We're not willing to afford it.

I also don't buy the argument that there are many unmarked lines. Other places have figured that out long time ago. You think there are no unmarked things in the ground in Paris, Jerusalem or Kyoto? At least we don't have the problem that Romans and Cairenes have: every time you stick a spade in the ground, you find a protected historic artifact.

by Jasper on Jul 3, 2012 8:35 pm • linkreport

Bossi, thanks for you input.

There are two issues really.

1) Does the benefit exceed the cost? No one is really convinced that we have a good handle on either of those numbers, but both would probably be large. The first step would probably be getting a solid answer to this question.

2. If the answer to 1 is yes, then how do we pay for it? I generally believe that winners should pay. PEPCO should pitch in some for reduced maintenance costs and better customer service. Those who currently have their lines above ground should pay because they get more reliable service. And the government should pay for all the other advantages (environmental, aesthetics, public safety, reduced government expenditures on things like cooling centers, local economy, etc...). We'd know how much each group would gain as part of question 1.

by David C on Jul 3, 2012 10:29 pm • linkreport

There are several problems with putting cables underground, not least the location and cost issues, but I'd also like to bring up something that hasn't been brought up: it's less efficient to put cables underground, since the ground is a better conductor than air, so more power leaks out (and every electrical engineer will cringe at my explanation, but c'est la vie). This tends to be more of an issue with transmission than distribution, though.

It also misses the fact that not all power outages are related to downed power lines--transformer issues probably caused a few of the larger outages.

by Joshua Cranmer on Jul 3, 2012 10:53 pm • linkreport

You do not want underground power with a utility company that opposes them. On large scale power outages as this one you will likely get you power back last in order to generate data they can use to back some of the utilities statements.

by Chris Anderson on Jul 4, 2012 6:39 am • linkreport

It seems fairly clear that the reason we don't have accurate numbers for the cost of improving the Pepco problem (above or below ground solutions) here is that 1) Pepco doesn't want to do it and 2) the government regulators are complicit either by omission or commission. A third problem is us, the consumers. If we want change we have to find a way to hold both the regulators and Pepco accountable. Absolutely no rate hikes even considered until a reliable third party assessment has been done and implementation is underway. No more bogus tree trimming. It's also an election year. Use your vote to hold public officials accountable. Pepco and the regulators' efforts are certainly reprehensible, but no more than ours if we do nothing.

by Ordinary Citizen on Jul 4, 2012 7:59 am • linkreport

DDOT's LeBlanc asserted that, if the power lines were buried, then the telephone and cable TV lines would have to be buried as well, adding to the cost: "The current cost estimate is $15,000 per property and again that is just for the electrical service. The other communication lines would also need to be rewired."

I don't think so. Here in Mount Pleasant, we've got buried power lines, but the phone and cable TV lines are strung from poles. The issues are separable.

Concerning the reliability of buried power lines, sure, they're much better than the pole-strung lines, but not perfect. We've lost power a few times, most recently when the laying of new curbing crushed the power conduit underneath it.

by Jack on Jul 4, 2012 9:42 am • linkreport

Go to very cold countries -- like, say, England -- and you will see all the powerlines are buried in all but the most rural of rural places.

For example, East London, South London...buried lines. In Brooklyn and Queens you have power lines up everywhere.

The USA power infrastructure looks, and I don't say this to deride Nicaragua, more like Nicaragua than Western Europe.

It's shameful -- and the greed of for-profit electrical utilities is why things are the way they are.

by James on Jul 5, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

@ James:and the greed of for-profit electrical utilities is why things are the way they are.

That's bogus. It's not like Europe does not have for-profit power companies. They do.

It's that European countries do not have for-profit power (and cable, and phone, and gas) monopolies like here. In most European countries, the grid is separate from power companies. The grid itself is heavily regulated and either government or semi-government.

UK example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Grid_%28Great_Britain%29
Dutch example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TenneT

Power companies hook up to the grid, pay to do so, and have to actually compete for customers. Gasp! Crazy idea! Customers can choose whatever power company they want based on price, payment plan, or the type of power that companies offer (coal, nuke, wind, solar, bio, etc).

For instance, check here a UK website where you can compare pricing from different power companies.
http://www.ukpower.co.uk/gas_electricity_suppliers

And here's the Dutch equivalent:
http://energiewijzer.nl/

by Jasper on Jul 5, 2012 4:13 pm • linkreport

This was a thoroughly interesting post and set of comments. Thanks David A for writing and starting the conversation. I learned a lot about the topic and proved once again how little I know.

@David C ... You wrote that legislation is what initialized power lines moved underground. But surely a major factor in this legislation was that the cost was deemed reasonable relative to the benefit and the benefit would be a function of how many people/households these lines would serve. So at least on face value, it isn't clear to me that legislative push means that Avent is wrong.

If I understand later comments, it might very well be that the cost of putting power lines underground today would be more than in the past. However, if we think that the water lines are getting close to the end of their lifetime, it seems to me that a coordinated effort might realize some big gains.

by Geof Gee on Jul 5, 2012 5:13 pm • linkreport

Two more comments:
1: Thoughtful comments from an engineer in Canada:
http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/07/keeping-americas-power-on-ctd.html

2: There was a small power outage in Holland. Customers will get a rebate for the inconvenience. €35 for the first 4h, €20 for each next block of 4h. Customers do not need to do anything, they will get the money direct deposited back from their power company.

[Power companies pay to grid utility company TenneT for the right to use the grid, and charge customers for that. I speculate that they will get a reimbursement from TenneT.]

by Jasper on Jul 5, 2012 7:27 pm • linkreport

@Alex B: Obviously I am probably willing to pay more (reducing the payback time), I might even pay $100 per blackout day in extreme cases (maybe the cost of a hotel stay), but that still requires a 37.5 year payback, which is far more than most people would be willing to tolerate.

It is probably so that it is not cost-effective to bury the power lines for a retail power user. However, what about for businesses?

On an evening out last year in VA, my spouse and I were planning to eat dinner and see a movie. Zap! power is out. All restaurants along strip go black and lose customers. Movie tickets useless (we redeemed them later). Guessing here that each place lost around $100 per table, times 100 tables for the night, amounts to a loss of $10,000. Multiply that by 20-30 for the number business, the total loss is $200,000 to $300,000. For one single night in one neighborhood.

by goldfish on Jul 6, 2012 9:20 am • linkreport

On an evening out last year in VA, my spouse and I were planning to eat dinner and see a movie. Zap! power is out. All restaurants along strip go black and lose customers. Movie tickets useless (we redeemed them later). Guessing here that each place lost around $100 per table, times 100 tables for the night, amounts to a loss of $10,000. Multiply that by 20-30 for the number business, the total loss is $200,000 to $300,000. For one single night in one neighborhood.

Interesting anecdote, but irrelevant to the point I cited (and that you quoted) - how much would those businesses be willing to pay every month as an add-on to their electric bill to avoid such events? And how long would the additional infrastructure take to pay off at that rate?

How much it costs is one thing. How much is lost is another. But the key question is 'is it worth it?' And no, simply tallying up the losses doesn't really answer that question.

The specifics of a business are different, but I'd suspect the pattern is the same - the payoff through user benefits alone is far too long, therefore the power companies won't do it without some compelling justification (like building more densely! A fine way to both improve your business district as well underground your utilities).

by Alex B. on Jul 6, 2012 9:30 am • linkreport

One estimate cited by Debonis was that 65% of current outage victims would have been saved by burying most ofnthe lines for only 1.1 billion. The new convention center cost 800 million in 2008 dollars. So there is the money.

We should have competing power companies. Some smaller jurisdictions, like Lubbock, Texas, do. As we do with phone and cable. Then firms that fail to provide service and plan for storms and remove overgrown trees would lose customers.

I leave it to your imagination as to the relationship between the government granted PEPCO monopoly and the fact thatitnis among the top 20 donors to everyone from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on down. And that its lobbyist are frequent visitors to local pols.

by BruceMajors4DC on Jul 7, 2012 1:04 pm • linkreport

@Alex B: if such an event happens once or twice a year, I would expect that each business would be willing to pay an added $1000 per month ($12000/year), a total of $240k-360k added revenue for the utility per year. If that were accumulated over several years, that would be enough to make some improvements. How it is related to the quoted point: you figured only residential loss, which is far smaller than business loss.

BTW, all the power to that neighborhood is underground.

by goldfish on Jul 7, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

District of Columbia under legislation proposed by members of the D.C. Council.
I have answers for that to; if you bury you still have to have some type of maintenance and repairs. Because the life expectedly of the wires, are around 30 years; But like anything else you would want to bury the problems, for them to come back and take someone’s life through contact voltages. One problem will lead to another. First try doing a survey of your underground wiring and see how many wires are leaking voltage. Google: Anthony Bubba Green
WUSA 9 Wins Murrow Award For Hidden Dangers Story | wusa9.com
Apr 12, 2012 – WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- 9News Now’s Consumer unit featuring Lesli Foster is a recipient of a 2012 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
www.deannaslyric.org

by anthony bubba green on Jul 11, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

I am so glad SJE brought up distributed power. Centralized power distribution is a completely outdated and inefficient concept, and unreliable at that. Most of the power generated is lost as heat due to resistance in the power lines - this is stupid. Most of those lines are really old and need to be replaced. Also existing power stations are very inefficient, compared to microtubrines used for distributed power, which can run on a multitude of inexpensive fuels. CNG, liquid "clean" coal, etc. Microtubrines could provide combined, electric, hot drinking water, and hydronic heating AND cooling, to an entire local block or subdivision. It could do this FAR more efficiently than central power, and more reliably, and without all the energy wasted over distances. All the existing energy distribution lines, power plants, and probably most furnaces, A/C, and hot water heaters are all inefficient, old, and need to be replaced. Why not replace it all with a much better system that is efficient, reliable, and elegant, and runs on cheaper and more abundant fuels. All we need to do is figure out a creative way to finance the distributed power conversion projects.

by Lee on Jul 13, 2012 9:37 am • linkreport

combined hydronic heating/cooling, electric, and hot drinking water is called tri-generation, or tri-gen. Also modern hydronics is a way more efficient and comfortable way of heating and cooling a house, in particular conductive heating/cooling in floors and walls, or alternatvely hydronic "kickspace" blowers. All this can be done rather inexpensively with PEX tubing (if you have cheap labor). if you combine this with a geothermal ground loop, you hardly need any, if any, input from an external heating/cooling device, except at weather extremes. So with tri-gen, all you have to deliver over distances is fuel, like liquid coal, NG, or other alternatives. Another very efficient way to heat/cool is air heat pump system w/ backup heating, which could complement distributed power system. There are also now microtubines small enough for a large home, or for ex. a house broken up into rental units. These things would pay for themselves in so many ways, both for families and at the macro level, if we only financed them creatively at the outset.

by Lee on Jul 13, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

One thing that everyone seems to be missing:

Water lines, gas lines and sewers are already underground....

by Ben on Nov 8, 2012 10:36 pm • linkreport

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