Asking The Question About Undergrounding

Driving home recently, I spotted electric company personnel diligently working in the extreme heat and humidity to replace wooden power poles. It looked like this was going to be a major project as most of the poles in the area were in poor condition. The poles’ tenants – power and telephone lines, along with internet cable – were drooping precipitously close to sidewalks.

With the age of most of our overhead infrastructure, a steady stream of replacement projects keeps linemen busy. Summertime means undertaking the often intimidating task of repairing and replacing extreme damage left over from winter storms.

Summer work also means cutting down trees and limbs from right-of-ways. I spent two summers during college working for a rural electric cooperative as a member of the “brush crew.” That meant climbing trees to cut limbs getting tangled in power lines while the ground crew used long, “extendo” poles to pull the branches away from the lines, so they didn’t fall on the power cables and trip breakers for miles up and down the system. (For the towns of Laverne and Buffalo, OK, I still maintain my innocence for knocking out power for the better part of a very hot day back in 1976).

Regardless of what drives the need, for any power or telephone company this ongoing maintenance ritual is simply part of the annual life-cycle costs built into your rates.

So why not place those power and cable lines underground where they are safe from the worst Mother Nature has to offer, errant car crashes and countless other hazards that overhead lines battle 365 days a year? In a word, the utility companies say “costs.”

When it comes to “undergrounding,” the process of moving electric lines or telecommunications cable from wooden poles to a buried installation, power companies and telecoms cringe at the suggestion and quickly regurgitate a rote response: “It is many times more expensive to place lines underground than overhead.”

Historically, that statement is largely true – it can cost more, though just how much more is highly debatable. Most of the cost comparison information is very dated or anecdotal at best. One of the most common references I’ve seen is from a mid-’90s study and doesn’t include horizontal directional drilling or microtrenching in the equation. Further, that price comparison is just for the initial investment, rarely factoring in life-cycle costs.

The bottom line is that due to the perceived expense, plus significant investment in hardware and manpower training, there is no real motivation for electric and telecom utilities to consider undergrounding. Old habits and perceptions die hard.

Change is slowly coming to the aerial industry. As underground utility installation costs continue to fall and documentation of much longer life-cycle costs emerge, it is getting increasingly hard to ignore or fall back on outdated data to defend the continued use of overhead lines – particularly for new installations. Indeed, with modern subdivisions, it is rare to see any overhead infrastructure within the confines of the community. Costs are competitive for new construction, life-cycle costs are lower and aesthetics are incredible.

One example is a regional broadband company in the Midwest. It is adamant that all its new installations and replacement projects place all lines underground. It claims after examining all costs such as storm outages, life-cycle and modern construction costs, it can’t afford not to go underground.

Even with existing communities, local leaders are starting to ask the question: why can’t we put our utilities underground? Take Rancho Santa Fe, CA, located to the north of San Diego. Recently, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) started a year-and-a-half program to bring new poles, wires, connections and transformers to the area.

During an update, the Rancho Santa Fe Association board asked why not go underground instead? To no one’s surprise, the utilities’ representative admitted there were no plans to go underground – and that it would cost three-to-four times as much.

But the savvy RSF Association board continued to explore underground options, including funding possibilities. The association president labeled the poles a “serious concern,” and told SDG&E he wanted to continue his investigation.

Most likely, Rancho Santa Fe will be stuck with overhead lines again, but won’t be happy about it. And the next time, the homeowners will be armed with more facts, more questions and probably will be less likely to settle.

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