The prolonged recovery from Friday’s destructive storm has rekindled questions about why much of the region’s electric infrastructure remains above ground, exposed to the vagaries of the weather, and whether the necessary money and political wherewithal can be mustered to bury more power lines.
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was one of several public officials to call Monday for new consideration of “undergrounding,” as the utility industry calls it. “People are fed up with power outages,” he said. “We need a game-changer.”
Changing the game, experts agree, would be somewhere between moderately and astoundingly expensive and might create nearly as many reliability issues as it solves. Yet many jurisdictions nationwide mandate underground infrastructure for new construction. A few others have undertaken ambitious efforts to bury existing overhead lines.
In the Washington area, efforts to bury power lines have been abortive, snarled not only by the tremendous cost, but also by political and regulatory complications. Pepco this year has proposed burying a pair of its most troublesome D.C. “feeders” — distribution lines that reach into neighborhoods — but first the District’s Public Service Commission must rule on the utility’s method for choosing which feeders to bury.
Whether to bury more of the region’s electric power infrastructure is not a new question. The D.C. commission has been exploring the potential of undergrounding since 2003; it commissioned an independent study of the feasibility and benefits, and Shaw Consultants International delivered the report two years ago.
The consultants analyzed three major options: burying virtually all power lines, burying only major distribution lines, and undergrounding both distribution lines and neighborhood feeders.
For $1.1 billion, the study found, primary distribution lines could be buried, eliminating 65 percent of customer outages related to overhead lines. At about double that cost, primary and secondary lines could be placed underground, cutting 87 percent of overhead outages. Burying all overhead lines, including household service lines, would cost $5.8 billion and could prevent more than 1,000 annual outage incidents.
Michael W. Maxwell, Pepco’s vice president for asset management, said the company ran the numbers last year: Spread out among all of the utility’s residential customers in the District over 10 years, a full undergrounding would add $226 to the average monthly bill. Spread over 30 years, that figure would drop to $107.
“This is an expensive proposition,” Maxwell said. “And we are a business, and there is a regulatory process in place around cost recovery. The commission has to say this is or is not prudent.”
The cost challenges are even greater in Maryland, the remainder of Pepco’s territory. In the District, nearly 80 percent of Pepco’s high-voltage lines are buried. In Maryland, only 57 percent of Pepco’s 8,400 miles of those lines are buried.