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Commercial Interests

Digging For Truth On Why We Can’t Bury Power Lines

Another Storm, Another Power Outage. Why Nobody Is Considering An Easier Way

By Scott Van Voorhis, Banker & Tradesman Columnist
Monday, November 7, 2011

We are coming off our second week-long power outage in three months. And it’s time to ask some tough questions.

Can we really blame it all on Mother Nature? And why can’t our big utility companies, whose chief executives pull down multimillion-dollar pay packages, get the power back in a timely fashion?

The biggest clue that this is as much a manmade disaster as a freak of nature comes from the performance of the state’s 41 town- and city-owned municipal utilities. As they did after Irene, many had the lights back on in a matter of hours, not days. Moreover, it’s not just about having enough repair crews on hand – something the multibillion-dollar power companies can’t seem to master – that has made a difference.

A few municipal utility companies, including Concord’s, have begun to put their local power lines underground – taking away, in one fell swoop, the danger of massive outages after snow, ice and wind storms. “The key is you don’t have these massive outages because the network is protected,” said Patrick Mehr of the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice.

No Big Dig

OK, it’s great that the good folks in upscale Concord can spring for this, but what about the rest of us?

Well yes, it’s an extra cost, but hardly a crazy one - about $600,000 to put a mile of lines underground each year. Even so, Concord residents still pay 40 percent less on their electric bills than neighboring towns that get their power from big utility companies, according to Mehr.

And this is far from a crazy idea – in fact, New England and our country as a whole is a backwater when it comes to power delivery, with many European companies having put much of their electric grids underground.

No one is advocating another massive Big Dig, this time to bury all the region’s power lines. But Concord has hardly done it overnight – it is slowly but steadily doing it on a decades-long timeline, with 40 percent of the town’s power lines now running underground.


Interestingly, the idea invoked a less than enthusiastic response from a spokesman for National Grid, one of the state’s trio of big power companies. He cited the expense of putting lines underground, while also noting that if there are problems, it’s much more difficult to fix, since you have to dig up the lines to make repairs.

Still, he acknowledged an industry study that found a 35 percent decrease in outages when lines were put underground.

But if putting lines underground is an extra expense, the status quo right now is not – and should not – be acceptable. Yes, it would cost more money to put lines underground, but spread over the long-term, the impact is likely palatable.

Function Over Form

I just love it when utility companies cite the cost of making an improvement that could reduce outages. As if the current week-long blackout we just went through was a merry vacation for the hundreds of thousands Massachusetts residents – and countless businesses – stuck in the dark for much of the week.

The fact is, the cost of these mass outages is staggering. It will cost local communities and state and federal taxpayers tens of millions to clean up after this past storm, a process vastly complicated and made hazardous and much more expensive by downed power lines.

And in a state with a major economy like Massachusetts, the engine that drives New England, the cost in lost productivity and sales for businesses is staggering as well. We are easily talking in the tens of millions, and that’s before we get the price tag for the mass outages the state just suffered through after Irene.

Maybe the biggest question, though, is where the Patrick administration in all this?
The electric power industry is hardly a Wild West sector, but rather one of the few regulated industries left, with the state Department of Public Utilities having the power to accept and reject electric rate increases.

The Patrick administration has been aggressively promoting a green power agenda. In fact, we are all paying for it through a surcharge on our electric bill that goes to all sorts of earthy, crunchy – and highly expensive – wind power and solar projects. Not to mention the expensive Cape Wind deal ratepayers will also be subsidizing for years to come.

All that’s great – I love the earth as much as anyone – but we have a bigger, more immediate problem right now.

We pay far too much for electricity here in Massachusetts, with some of the highest rates in the country. Yet we have utility companies that find it a challenge to get the lights back on after a big storm.

How about fixing that before we worry about how green our power is?