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Roger Anderson is senior research scientist at the Center for
Computational Learning Systems, Columbia University (
Theodore J. Kury is director of energy studies, Public Utility Research
Center, University of Florida (
OCTOBER 2014 The Costco Connection 21
AS I WRITE this it’s the
height of hurricane season in the United States.
Soon, winter storms will
bring wind and snow to
much of the country.
Anxious people everywhere worry about the
impact these storms might have on their electricity, and some wonder if their electricity
service might be more secure if those lines
were buried underground. But the answer is
not that easy. Burying (or undergrounding)
power lines is expensive and might not solve
the problem at all.
First, electric utilities do not provide service
free, as everyone who opens their utility bill
every month can attest. All of the costs of providing service are ultimately paid by the utility’s
customers, so it is critical that every dollar spent
on that service will provide good value for those
customers. Burying power lines is expensive, at
roughly $1 million per mile. But the geography
or population density of an area can halve this
cost or triple it. In 2002, North Carolina studied
the impact of burying the state’s power lines and
concluded that electricity rates would more
than double. This price increase was seen as
unreasonable for customers.
Burying power lines also reduces their
accessibility, making it more difficult to repair
the system. So while consumers with under-
ground lines may see fewer outages, those out-
ages may be longer in duration.
Finally, burying power lines does not necessarily protect them from damage. Certainly, it
protects them from damage due to wind, flying
debris, falling trees and accumulated snow and
ice, but it makes them more vulnerable to damage from water intrusion. Areas that are more
susceptible to corrosive storm surge and flooding may see systems that are less reliable, and
more expensive, as a result of undergrounding.
If storms are increasing in frequency or
ferocity, this consideration should not be overlooked, as types of storms vary with geography.
Improvements such as trimming trees; replacing wood poles with steel, concrete or composite ones; or reinforcing poles with guy wires
may be nearly as effective at mitigating storm
damage, and at a lower cost.
In short, while burying power lines may be
effective, a mandate to do so will not be cost-effective. Whether a community should bury its
power lines is a question to be evaluated on a
case-by-case basis by the utility, its regulator
and the government. Otherwise, consumers
will end up spending more for their electricity
service, and getting less. C
IN AMERICA, violent
storms always produce
one guaranteed outcome:
power lines are knocked
down and the power is out for thousands and
sometimes millions of customers for days.
What kinds of learning systems are used by
utilities to repair and replace these service outages? Judging from the fact that new poles are
put in the exact locations where the past damage occurred, not much.
We seem to suffer the same mistakes over
and over again.
The postmortems done after catastrophic
power outages usually involve economic model
analyses to demonstrate that local customers
would have to pay exorbitant prices for burying
transmission and distribution cables in order
to be immune to outages from the next storm.
This is itself a peculiar argument, since all other
utilities but electricity are delivered with buried
services: water, sewage, natural gas and even
new phone fiber. However, our national security needs are never modeled or considered.
What are the true costs and risks to
national security from these unnecessary
aboveground power outages? My group at the
Center for Computational Learning at
Columbia Engineering has built a threat simu-
lator that calculates the costs and risks from
natural and unnatural events such as severe
storms, climate change and terrorism ( www.
Our ThreatSim repeatedly computes hun-
dreds of millions of dollars more in societal
losses and risks from power outages than the
costs utilities come up with when they evaluate
aboveground versus underground electricity.
Consider the millions of dollars lost in
business revenue during a blackout, in addition
to the human suffering and economic costs
associated with loss of communications, transportation (subways, for example) and family
food and water supplies. In a blackout that lasts
more than 72 hours, the threat level for looting
and rioting increases a hundred-fold. Did you
know that militaries of the world target electric
grids first and foremost? You can bet that terrorists know this. When utilities are allowed to
keep their transmission and distribution facilities aboveground they are making all of us vulnerable to attack.
Let’s put our power lines underground. C