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December 2017

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A fter every big storm, Mike Hyland, senior vice president for engineering services with the American Public Power Association, fields the same question from reporters: Why aren't more electrical lines underground? As we leave the catastrophic hurricane season of 2017, these familiar questions have resur- faced. With communi- ties facing weeks – and in the case of Puerto Rico, months – without power, doesn't it make sense to put everything underground? (Not to mention, of course, that the construction industry stands ready and able to install those under- ground lines.) If only it were so sim- ple, Hyland says. In the way: costs, more costs and only a partial solu- tion to the problem. The Edison Electric Institute's (EEI) 2012 "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" study puts it this way: "Custom- ers want wires underground, but are unwilling to pay for the cost of putting them there." EEI reports that when it polled 1,002 Americans about how much more they'd be willing to pay for "undergrounding" (as the utility industry calls it), less than 15 percent of respondents said they'd be willing to see their utility bills increase by 20 percent to get this done. Depending on your area of the country, under- grounding can cost anywhere from five to 10 times the cost of installing overhead lines, says EEI. The second problem, says Hyland, is that burying lines doesn't alleviate all hazards, which is especially true with flooding. One example: when the Hur- ricane Sandy storm surge took out a Con Edison substation in New York City, roughly a quarter mil- lion people were in the dark. Another problem, says the EEI study, is that "each construction project is unique, and costs from one utility's study may not be easily compara- ble with another." And while new construction regularly puts utilities underground, those utilities can be linked to above-ground facilities and are still vulnerable to flooding. Undergrounding is hardly a lost cause, however. EEI says electrical utilities are installing underground facilities at a faster pace than overhead lines. And Hyland points to two communities that have had a clear, sys- tematic long-term plan to go underground: Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, Colorado. "Fort Collins is now 99 percent underground, but it took them 20 years," Hyland says. "It's not something you can do on the fly." Speaking at the ICUEE show this fall, Gretchen Bakke, author of "The Grid," added another point on the matter. "Electricity is hot right now, and it's only becoming more popular and more essential," she said. "It's more like the soul of the modern world." Which means that as we start to plug in our cars and trucks – along with whatever other technology we start to think of as essential in the coming years – our individual demands will only go up. We all need to answer how much we are willing to pay to keep the uninterrupted juice flowing. | December 2017 9 on record | by Marcia Gruver Doyle Why not go underground? Fluor-contracted lineman works on a high-power line in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Fluor)

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