Bury power lines to reduce outages

Amidst widespread power outages, David Frum argues that the United States should pursue a particular infrastructure goal: bury more power lines.

The choice has been made for reasons of cost. The industry rule of thumb is that it costs about 10 times as much to bury wire as to string wire overhead: up to $1 million per mile, industry representatives claim. Since American cities are much less dense than European ones, there would be a lot more wire to string to serve a U.S. population than a European one.

Cost matters.

But now reflect:

1. There’s reason to think that industry estimates of the cost of burying wires are inflated. While the U.S. industry guesstimates costs, a large-scale study of the problem conducted recently in the United Kingdom estimated the cost premium at 4.5 to 5.5 times the cost of overhead wire, not 10.

2. U.S. cost figures are a moving target. American cities are becoming denser as the baby boomers age and opt for central-city living, as I discussed in a previous column. Denser cities require fewer miles of wire to serve their populations.

3. Costs can only be understood in relation to benefits. As the climate warms, storms and power outages are becoming more common. And as the population ages, power failures become more dangerous. In France, where air conditioning is uncommon, a 2003 heat wave left 10,000 people dead, almost all of them elderly. If burying power lines prevented power outages during the hotter summers ahead, the decision could save many lives.

4. As you may have heard, we’re suffering very severe unemployment just at present. Joblessness is acute among less educated workers, many of whom used to work in the now severely depressed construction industry. Burying power lines is a project that could put many hundreds of thousands of the unemployed to work at tasks that make use of their skills and experience.

I don’t think you have to make a stimulus argument to get power lines buried. You could also make an aesthetic argument: many would suggest power lines are ugly. In denser areas, power lines clog up the streetscape and in more rural areas power lines block natural views.

While Frum suggests costs are indeed an issue, couldn’t local communities take care of this in their ordinances and zoning? For example, a city could require that new developments have to have buried power lines. Perhaps the cat is already out of the bag on this one but how many new developments in the US have buried power lines?

Another note: I live in a neighborhood where the power lines are buried. I do think it looks a lot better. However, this is not a fool-proof solution. Last summer, our power went out four or five times, several of these more than one day. This required the power company to come out and dig up areas throughout the neighborhood. If you came to our neighborhood today, you can still see where they did their digging and sort of planted grass again. Second, our neighborhood is connected to several other neighborhoods by above ground wires. Therefore, we could still lose power as a neighborhood if these overhead lines all went down. Thus, you would need to pursue burying power lines on a broad scale for everyone to benefit.

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