Power struggle: to bury or not to bury

power_line_worker Wouldn’t this be easier underground? Lineman Shawn Rasmussen works on replacing a power pole in northeast Houston. ( Steve Campbell / Houston Chronicle)

Following many days of darkness post-Hurricane Ike, many Houstonians have asked “Why don’t we just bury all the power lines and avoid this big hassle next time?” We tried to answer that question in Monday’s paper (and also once before).
In a nutshell, the issue is cost: burying lines can cost 10- to 20-times more than stringing them overhead. Taking existing lines and submerging them can be even more costly, nevermind the hassle of digging up backyards to get them there.
And even if you do bury them they are still vulnerable to flooding and sometimes harder to repair. This report covers some of the pros and cons of burying lines. Here’s a paper about the issue in Europe.
But what about the cost to Houston businesses and residents from being without power so long? Wouldn’t that justify the expense?
Perhaps. We tried to get a rough ballpark of costs in a story last month, and it’s clear the storm’s impact continues to ripple through the economy.
As mentioned in the story, a study of projects in Florida concluded economics alone didn’t justify burying existing lines but rather other factors, namely asthetics, had to be included to make a project worthwhile. The authors of the study have developed a computer model to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of putting existing power lines underground, which utilities there may begin using soon.
And, to answer a couple of reader questions about the topic:

“AwakeAndVocal wrote: Why should Center Point get to keep its monopoly over Houston electricity infrastructure in this era of deregulation? Can Houstonians presently select an electricity infrastructure company based on whether it insures its poles, transformers and wires in the event of a mess like Hurricane Ike?”

To break the monopoly CenterPoint has you’d have to convince other companies to essentially build more power lines into our neighborhoods. I don’t think any of us wants more than one wire running through our yards. This is the one area that remains regulated (although some would argue the regulations are pretty light) because its physically impractical to open to competition.
As far as the insurance issue, I don’t believe other utilties have their lines and poles insured either but many do have storm funds, special reserves set up to pay for such recovery. It appears the Public Utility Commission may have quashed CenterPoint’s effort to build up such a fund in the past (but hopefully we’ll address that in anoterh story soon). But even if there was a storm fund or insurance, it doesn’t necessarily mean lights would have come on sooner.
From another reader:

“We live in the Wortham Grove subdivision, which has been here for 11 years. We have lived here for 6 years and our powerlines are buried, hooray! During the last two years, I found out that our power was tied into a pole line in the next subdivision. I would like to ask this question; why go to the expense of burying cable and then tie into a pole line?”

It could be argued that every bit of cable buried underground essentially creates a smaller target for trees/storms etc. to strike. So just because one section is buried and another is not doesn’t mean the buried seciton is a complete waste of effort. It’s sort of like saying there’s no point in wearing a bike helmet because you could fall and break your leg.
On a lighter note, this image probobly explains the problems with our power grid better than any other: Download file