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Digging Into a D.C. Power Line Solution

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Aug. 24 Metro article "Many Trees Do Not Grow in Brookland" reported that residents and business owners in that Northeast Washington neighborhood are demanding that the city take $10.5 million budgeted for streetscape improvements and use it to bury utility lines. These protests have again highlighted the unspoken natural law of the electric industry: Trees are the mortal enemy of power lines.

As people's counsel of the District, I believe that we can preserve the canopy of our "City of Trees" while allowing Pepco to fulfill its statutory mandate to provide the reliable electricity supply our city demands and deserves. The public policy challenge is to decide how this can be done and how to allocate the costs involved.

First, the District should assure residents that it has a coherent and comprehensive vegetation management strategy and an electric service reliability plan. That plan should provide an inclusive process with all of the usual stakeholders: Pepco, the D.C. Department of Transportation, the Office of the People's Counsel and the D.C. Public Service Commission (PSC), as well as representatives of affected neighborhoods.

An independent "referee" is needed to oversee the creation of a comprehensive plan of action. This referee must have the authority to hold the stakeholders' feet to the fire. This will ensure accountability and give D.C. residents confidence in the process. The plan should provide for notice to affected neighborhoods so their concerns and recommendations can be addressed. A comprehensive plan would allow Pepco to publicly indicate, annually and by neighborhood, how it will manage and trim vegetation to ensure electric system reliability. All stakeholders would have timely notice as to what actions needed to be taken.

Second, it is time to seriously answer the underlying question: Would burying some portion of Pepco's electric system result in safe, adequate and reliable service?

Pepco should not be permitted to "scare" regulators, policymakers and consumers away from a serious conversation about burying power lines by saying over and over again that burying cables costs $8 million per mile. If burying power lines does not result in safe, adequate and reliable service, then what is the point of doing it? Sadly, Pepco's cost study, which is on file with the PSC, fails to answer the question of whether putting electric lines underground would result in safe, adequate and reliable service.

At the request of the Office of the People's Counsel, the PSC has agreed to conduct a reliability study on underground lines. Then elected officials, policymakers, regulators and my office, together with the community, can decide whether burying the lines is worth the investment. We can also determine the most effective mechanism to ensure that everyone shares the costs associated with this venture.

For Brookland and other mixed retail and residential corridors around the city to thrive, their economic future depends on finding a solution to this problem now.

-- Elizabeth A. Noel

Washington

The writer is people's counsel of the District of Columbia.

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