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We All Want to Put Those Damned Power Lines Underground

Burying utility lines can be prohibitively expensive, and it is far from foolproof. There are other ways to accomplish the same goal, including the use of drones and smart grids.

Power outages are becoming more frequent in America. Research has found that mass outages increased tenfold between the mid-1980s and early 2010s. A variety of natural disasters, from earthquakes to fires to snowstorms, can cause prolonged outages, such as the loss of power to 1.4 million customers during Hurricane Florence. The direct costs to consumers are, according to federal calculations, roughly $150 billion annually. Last winter’s storm in Texas cost the state economy between $80 billion-$130 billion. Insurance losses range from $10 billion-$20 billion, and of course there is human loss too, since outages in cold weather cause fatalities.

The problem is growing due to America’s aging, overstretched infrastructure — 70 percent of electric infrastructure assets are in the latter stage of their life cycle, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The question is what to do about it. The most popular idea is to bury lines underground; but it sometimes makes more sense to keep them above ground and optimize them to better withstand natural disasters.

Moving lines underground would make the power system more resilient overall, but it is very expensive. A 2018 estimate found that undergrounding North Carolina's power lines would cost $41 billion (nearly six times the book value of distribution assets for the state’s three major power companies) and take a quarter century to complete.

Burying lines has other challenges: Underground transmission lines are harder to repair, are vulnerable to flooding, require enhanced insulation, and are not impervious to all weather impacts, as some sources feeding the system are still above the ground. For all these reasons, only about 25 percent of additional power line construction in recent years has been underground. Burying lines is a particular challenge in cities, as it requires digging up old infrastructure.

Still, some cities and regions have chosen this option, including Anaheim, Calif., and Dakota Energy in South Dakota. Florida Power and Light Company is embarking on an aggressive undergrounding initiative through the use of horizontal drilling. But for other governing bodies and utility companies that don’t want to foot this expense, there are preventive measures that can improve resiliency of overhead lines.

One is drone use. Aerial inspections can improve safety, and do it more cheaply than helicopters and more precisely than on-ground inspections. As Joseph Flynt writes for 3D Insider, “drones hit the perfect middle ground. It’s not as expensive as flying a helicopter, provides just as good as a perspective and can finish inspection jobs really quickly.”

Florida Power and Light has begun to use drones for maintenance, along with its undergrounding efforts. This required a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but new FAA rules on drones have opened up more options, and several other states have adopted the strategy.

Smart grid distribution is another method. This works by deactivating substations in advance of anticipated damage, in order to restore power more quickly. According to Choose Energy, smart grid technologies also include surplus energy storage. Such grids, Scientific American writes, “use sensors to constantly measure the status of different parts of the grid, and a series of devices that control the current flowing through different points,” working to reduce disruptions. The Department of Energy has been given funding to establish smart grid standards, although there are some concerns regarding vulnerability to hacking.

A third method is to strengthen the above-ground utility poles themselves. One such pole, known as the Boldur, can withstand higher winds and harsher weather conditions than most other poles, thanks to chemicals used to improve sturdiness. The firm BASF has promoted their use in regions with frequent storms, and they are being used heavily in Japan.

These and other technologies can help improve power line resilience when burying is too expensive an option. The question is whether America’s large energy companies will apply these upgrades, and what role state and federal money should play in funding them. The alternative is blackouts that will become more and more common, harming our quality of life.

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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