The unwillingness of rate-payers to substantially contribute complicates the debate over putting more lines underground, an idea that has gained favor in the weeks since the June 29 derecho storm but that remains costly.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) on several occasions has called buried lines a “game-changer” that could reduce or eliminate the impact of severe weather on the power grid. The region saw prolonged outages not only after June’s storm but also after other severe weather events, including Hurricane Irene and a run of massive snowstorms.
A 2010 study done for the D.C. Public Service Commission estimated that burying all of the city’s aboveground power lines would cost nearly $6 billion. Spread out among all D.C. ratepayers over a 30-year period, Pepco has estimated that such an effort could add more than $100 a month to the average bill.
Less drastic measures, such as burying only primary lines known as “feeders,” would be significantly less costly, but poll results show that even a modest increase in power prices would be a tough sell.
Lenya Gregory-Perkins, 51, said she thinks power lines should be buried, but not at the expense of Pepco ratepayers.
“As a business owner, there’s something we have to invest in,” she said, referring to her hair salon. “We can’t expect the client to bear the brunt of the cost. . . . [Pepco] is able to enjoy their profit, and we don’t benefit from that.”
Among the 82 percent of respondents who registered an opinion, the average amount they would be willing to pay is $11 extra a month, with about half saying they’d pay more than $2, and half saying less than that. Among the 47 percent willing to pay something, the average rises to $20.
Nancy McNabb, 61, did not lose power at her Capitol Hill home in June, but she said she would still be willing to pay extra — as much as $10 a month — to bury lines elsewhere in the city.
“I think it’s an embarrassment that our nation’s capital doesn’t have better infrastructure,” she said. “The initial cost is nothing compared to all of these events that require a response with mutual aid from far away. That has to be very costly, and we know these events are becoming more frequent.”
Michael Horne, 43, who lost power for two days at his home in Southeast Washington’s Garfield Heights neighborhood, agreed that Pepco should rely less on out-of-town crews: “People need work. You have contractors right here.” But he was wary of higher power bills.