Friday, 30 November 2012 00:00
All parts of a power transmission and distribution system can be put underground. The larger transmission lines that usually run along main roads and railroad tracks, the “tap lines” that branch off into neighborhoods, the substations and transformers, all of it. Underground systems are not perfectly protected, but they are better protected from wind, ice and trees.
The cost of underground wires in new developments is only a little more than putting in overhead wires. Replacement of existing overheads with buried wires is something else. It costs more, but how much more and if it’s worth the cost are questions that need serious study from some objective source, once and for all.
Over the past ten years, at least seven state and Canadian provinces, plus an electrical industry trade group, have sponsored big, fat studies weighing potential costs against potential benefits of widespread undergrounding of electrical wires.
Cost estimates have been all over the place. Population density and topography are major variables. There are different strategies to make repairs easier and dissipate heat buildup. Some studies don’t account for the probability of power, gas, telephone and cable operators sharing costs, or for trenching overhead wires as they fall or their worn poles must be replaced. We just don’t know. For decades LILCO and then LIPA seem to have cooked cost estimates of burying sagging, unsightly, dangerous and unreliable wires. Since the 1960s, LILCO and LIPA official cost estimates have gone from $900 million to $33.3 billion.
The fact is that by the 1960s, much of the cost argument against undergrounding was severely weakened by sharply rising property values and a new housing market that no longer required rock-bottom prices in prestigious Long Island. As the Johnson Administration was promoting popular highway beautification programs, there was also a serious and partly successful movement across Suburban America to underground ugly wires (California, with Governor Reagan’s support, required universal undergrounding in 1967). Starting with Huntington in 1964, several towns in still-suburbanizing Suffolk County required most new wiring to be buried.
From the start, a few developers of more exclusive housing colonies were quite willing to pay more for burying wires, and then to use it as a selling point. For most of Nassau County, something always happened to thwart serious efforts to bury vulnerable portions of the overhead power grid.
In 1950, following a series of incidents that included two damaging hurricanes, an airplane strike of high tension wires that blacked out all of Suffolk and much of Nassau, and a horrible double electrocution of workers in a Manhasset backyard, it looked like mass undergrounding was moving forward. Then the Korean War made materials scarce.
In 1971, after Hurricane Daria (250,000 Long Island homes blacked out), the Public Service Commission, which regulated investor-owned utilities like LILCO, proposed mandatory undergrounding of local wires across Long Island. Town and city supervisors lined up to testify against the proposal in the midst of one of the larger school tax revolts, terrified that they’d be blamed for raising rates. The PSC did require undergrounding in new, larger housing developments, as the Federal Housing Adminstration already had six years before. Unfortunately, Nassau County was almost entirely built years before. Many newer complexes kept their lights during Sandy. Underground wires.
After Hurricane Belle in 1976 (532,000 outages) and an infamous ice storm in 1978 (340,000 outages), Governor Carey looked like he’d be the hero to push through a comprehensive undergrounding law. The press speculated that it would be a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, but after a few weeks of tough talk and more property tax problems, he moved on to other things.
In 1954, LILCO warned that burying its wires would quadruple the average $10 a month bill over 45 years. In 1978, with the average bill at $37, the company warned that burying its wires would double bills. Today, the average LIPA bill is about $157.
Something always happened, and it usually involved hysterical claims about rates by the utility, and the fear that motivates most elected officials. Fear of being blamed for anything. Fear of utility services with large budgets for public, government and political relations.
We need grown-ups now. We need answers and options.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org