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As hurricane season arrives, we revisit the complicated question of 'undergrounding'

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Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
  • 725 items added with 353,009 views
  • Aug 21, 2020

In California, powerlines and poor maintenance of electric utilities are a major cause of wildfires and the destruction of forests, natural habitats and neighborhoods. But across the country, it's trees (propelled often by storms) that are the major cause of powerline destruction and power outages. 

As we progress into the world of smart grids, decentralized power and virtual powerplants, the conversation always comes back to grid resiliency. How can we minimize power outages and damages caused by overloading, short circuits and imbalances in the flow of electricity? Those conversations typically happen at the power source but, at the end of the day, we still need the transmission lines to move the electricity, no matter how intelligent the grid or decentralized the power source. 

Hurricane season is scary for many along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, but even if your home is not at risk for flooding or wind damage, you're likely vulnerable to blackouts caused by high winds and falling trees knocking out the powerlines suspended in the air over your community. Those power outages can be just as damaging as high winds. During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, my family went for a prolonged period without power, heat and warm showers in what was a cold October. Vulnerable powerlines make any and all communities vulnerable to additional destruction from Mother Nature. 

Why, then, along the annually hurricane-ravaged Atlantic coast, do we still rely solely on powerlines that are suspended in the air over our communities? We're now more than 130 years into powerline transmission, and although they've become safer to deal with and the power grids have gotten more intelligent, they remain just as vulnerable to power outages caused by inevitable and annual natural events. 

The concept of burying powerlines, often referred to as undergrounding, has been mulled over ad naseum: it's expensive, it will take a long time, does it even really work? European countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have been takin on the project. However, I think as we delve more and more into our possible energy and electricity future, the obstacles of expense and length of time toward solutions have become normal and accepted. Maybe it's now time to revisit the undergrounding conversation?



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