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Burying power lines not an easy call

By Scott O'Connell/Daily News staff
The MetroWest Daily News Posted
Feb 17, 2013

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Ken McGagh/Daily News file photo
Wires burn in Wayland during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

Last weekend's blizzard was historic by many measures. But for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents, it was hardly unusual in at least one respect: by the time it was over, their power was gone.

Some in the state, including the governor, have had enough. While touring the latest scenes of devastation early last week, Gov. Deval Patrick renewed talk of putting the region's fragile power infrastructure underground. Proponents of the move say it's long overdue, as the state's antiquated aboveground wire system proves time and time again to be inadequate to handle the fierce New England weather.

"It's basically Civil War technology," said state Rep. Chris Walsh of Framingham, who last month re-filed a bill that would instruct the state's Department of Public Utilities to begin the process of burying power lines. "It's just a stupid system - we're putting very important infrastructure up on poles."

But utility companies say putting power lines underground would be an exorbitantly expensive, not to mention a logistically flawed, approach to solving the region's outage problems.

"Underground utilities do come with their own set of problems," said NStar spokesman Mike Durand. "It's a discussion that can be had. But it comes down to the extremely high cost, and us needing to be judicious about how we spend customers' money."

Utilities instead suggest that putting more resources toward pole maintenance and tree trimming, as well as improving storm readiness and emergency response times, has already proven to be a more sound approach to protecting the region's power infrastructure.

After last weekend's blizzard left about 410,000 customers across the state without power by midday Saturday, for instance, restoration efforts were mostly complete only a few days later, with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency reporting there were fewer than 1,000 remaining outages by Wednesday evening. By comparison, after the 2008 ice storm, which caused a similar number of blackouts, many homes were without power for up to two weeks.

"You learn a lot from that," said Michael Hale, general manager at SELCO, the municipal power company in Shrewsbury, which was one of the hardest-hit towns in that event. "Since that point, additional resources have been put into our tree-trimming program" that have helped reduce outages in subsequent storms, he added.

Durand said NStar has also taken additional preventive measures like replacing lines with tree-resistant wire and putting in remote switching capabilities to further protect its above-ground system.

But going the more drastic step of burying power lines is not on utilities' radar, and the main reason they all cite is the cost, which would have to be passed on to ratepayers. According to an updated version of a 2009 study on undergrounding by the Edison Electric Institute released this past December, the cost to bury existing overhead lines could be as high as $2.4 million per mile in suburban areas and as high as $5 million in urban ones. The same conversion process for transmission lines would be double those amounts, the association of shareholder-owned electric companies found.

Even beyond the high cost, many utilities say undergrounding has its own risks, chief among them a greater susceptibility to flooding. Durand said it would take longer to locate and repair problems as well if power lines are not visible.

Undergrounding supporters say those arguments pale next to the state's more urgent need to modernize its utility infrastructure, however. Walsh said the cost objection in particular is short-sighted, because it assumes that the conversion process would have to take place all at once. Like Patrick, he wants a more in-depth analysis that could compare undergrounding to the cost utilities currently absorb trying to maintain and repair their aboveground systems throughout frequent weather interruptions.

"It's an investment in infrastructure," Walsh said. "If people felt they would be getting a better product, I think they'd be willing to do it."

Many neighborhoods throughout the region already have underground utilities, thanks to local ordinances that require new subdivisions to bury lines at the expense of the developer. Some towns have also tried to get single streets converted, including Hudson, which several years ago unsuccessfully applied for a $6 million federal grant that would have helped pay to bury wires along several blocks on South Street.

"It would have made it more aesthetically pleasing," said Paul Blazar, the town's executive assistant, who added outage prevention was not much of a factor in the town's decision.

Beautification was the main reason San Diego began undergrounding its utility lines in the early 1970s, according to city transportation and stormwater department spokesman Bill Harris, who added the region's weather threats of wind and fire typically aren't a concern for the coastal city. But even with a conversion cost of $1 million per mile, the ongoing project, which still has decades to go, has managed to stay afloat thanks to a complicated funding system that only adds a small surcharge onto city ratepayers' bills.

"It's probably not even a dollar per bill," Harris said, adding the extra fee produces about $54 million for the undergrounding program each year.

Whether a similar model would work in Massachusetts likely won't be figured out anytime soon, even though the Department of Public Utilities just last fall launched an investigation with the aim of finding ways to modernize the state's electricity infrastructure.

"The scope of the working group does not include a cost/benefit analysis (of undergrounding)," said Mary-Leah Assad, press secretary at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "However, the group will be developing methodology for conducting such an analysis. So, when their work is done, the framework will be set for an analysis."

Even then, some utilities and towns may not see much of a need to investigate the issue more. Several municipal power companies say their towns aren't pushing for undergrounding, and likely won't in the future as long as the costs of doing so remain high.

Ultimately, there's no easy way to tackle such a huge public works project, said Yakov Levin, general manager of Hudson Light & Power.

"Digging is digging," he said. "And it's not just us. If we remove poles, then telephone, cable and fire alarms will have to follow us."

Scott O'Connell can be reached at 508-626-4449 or

In the last several years, major storms causing hundreds of thousands of power outages have been a fairly regular occurence in Massachusetts. The following are a few of the state's most notable events, and the approximate number of blackouts they caused:

Tropical Storm Irene, August 2011: 700,000

Halloween Nor'easter, October 2011: 669,000

Hurricane Sandy, October 2012: 500,000

The blizzard of 2013, February 2013: 410,000