We all wanna put those damn power lines underground

Power outages are becoming more and more frequent in America. Research has shown that massive outages increased tenfold between the mid-1980s and early 2010s. Various natural disasters, from earthquakes to fires to snowstorms, can lead to prolonged outages, such as the loss of electricity to 1.4 million customers during Hurricane Florence. The direct costs to consumers are, according to federal calculations, about $150 billion per year. Last winter’s storm in Texas cost the state economy between $80 billion and $130 billion. Insurance losses range from $10 billion to $20 billion, and of course there are also human losses, as cold weather breakdowns cause fatalities.

The problem is compounded by America’s aging and overstretched infrastructure – 70% of electrical infrastructure assets are in the final 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 the lines underground; but sometimes it makes more sense to keep them above ground and optimize them to better withstand natural disasters.

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

Burying lines presents other challenges: underground transmission lines are more difficult to repair, are vulnerable to flooding, require reinforced insulation and are not immune to all weather impacts, as some sources feeding the system are always above ground. For all these reasons, only about 25% 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, California, and Dakota Energy in South Dakota. The Florida Power and Light Company is embarking on an aggressive landfill initiative through the use of horizontal drilling. But for other governing bodies and utility companies that don’t want to take on the expense, there are preventative measures that can improve overhead line resilience.

One is the use of drones. Aerial inspections can improve safety and do so more cheaply than helicopters and more accurately than ground inspections. As Joseph Flynt writes for 3D Insider“drones have found the middle ground. It’s not as expensive as flying a helicopter, it provides just as good a perspective, and can complete inspection jobs very quickly.

Florida Power and Light has started using drones for maintenance alongside its underground efforts. This required a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but new FAA drone rules opened up more options, and several other states adopted the strategy.

Smart grid distribution is another method. It works by shutting down substations before anticipated damage, to restore power faster. According to choose the energy, smart grid technologies also include excess energy storage. Such grids, American Scientist writes, “using sensors to continuously measure the state of different parts of the network, and a series of devices that control the current flowing through different points”, working to reduce disturbances. The Department of Energy has received funding to establish smart grid standards, although there are some concerns about vulnerability to hacking.

A third method is to reinforce the above-ground utility poles themselves. One of these poles, known as Boldur, can withstand stronger winds and harsher weather conditions than most other poles, thanks to chemicals used to improve sturdiness. BASF has promoted their use in regions where storms are frequent, and they are widely used in Japan.

These and other technologies can help improve the resilience of power lines when burial is too expensive an option. The question is whether major US energy companies will implement these upgrades and what role state and federal money should play in funding them. The alternative is power cuts which will become more and more frequent, harming our quality of life.

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

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

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