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With severe weather more frequent, you have to wonder why utilities don’t bury power lines

Source: 
Morning Call

The wind gusts, the trees fall, the power lines come down.

Blackout.

This foul-weather sequence raises the question of why power lines are above-ground in the first place. Can’t they be buried, where wind and trees wouldn’t harm them?

If it were only that simple, utilities experts say.

“While it may seem an obvious solution to anyone not close to the utility business, the reality is somewhat more complex -- and costly,” said Todd Meyers, spokesman for First Energy Corp, which owns Met-Ed.

Meyers says the company, like other utilities, hears the “bury the lines” demand all the time, especially after damaging storms such as the recent Tropical Storm Isaias.

National Preparedness Month, recognized each September to promote family and community disaster planning, is the perfect time to address it.

Both Met-Ed and PPL Electric Utilities say customers affected by outages often argue that power lines should be moved underground. But Meyers says not so fast. While that could reduce the number of storm-related outages in some places, moving lines underground is fraught with costs and technical challenges, including that underground lines have a shorter life expectancy, and outages can take longer to locate and repair than outages on overhead lines.

PPL spokesman Joe Nixon also noted that buildings and infrastructure such as other underground utilities like gas and water present barriers.

When power lines are buried, so is everything else attached to a utility pole, Nixon pointed out, including telecommunications equipment and fiber optic cables for high-speed internet, which adds to the price tag.

‘Simply not affordable’

Of Met-Ed’s 15,300 miles of distribution lines, about 11,500 miles are overhead and about 3,800 miles are underground.

By comparison, PPL maintains about 36,500 miles of overhead lines and 8,568 miles of underground distribution lines.

Underground distribution lines are still fed by overhead transmission lines that are exposed to storms. So if a feeder line goes out, the underground network goes with it.

Met-Ed estimates a mile of line placed underground would run more than $1 million. When factoring in the density of the Lehigh Valley’s population and its varied terrain, putting every service line underground would cost billions of dollars.

That price would ultimately be passed on to the customer, to the tune of thousands of dollars more per year.

“The typical Met-Ed residential customer using 1,000-kilowatt-hours of electricity per month pays about $130,” Meyers said. “Adding hundreds of dollars more to that bill every month to defray the costs of burying all overhead lines is simply not affordable.”

Bolstering service

In a report released in August, the state Public Utility Commission noted that fallen trees during severe weather are the biggest factor in power outages. And it cautioned that the situation may grow worse.

“If the weather pattern experienced in the past three years becomes the new norm, it appears many EDCs [electrical distribution companies] will continue to struggle to achieve sustained benchmark performance,” the PUC said.

To that end, both Met-Ed and PPL are working to ensure reliable service. Tree trimming remains the top way to prevent outages and can shorten their duration if corridors are clear for line crews to make repairs. Both companies also are replacing equipment and poles and installing remote-controlled devices designed to reduce outage size.

The bigger focus is on smarter grids, which help utilities get ahead of problems before they get worse.

In the past five-plus years, PPL estimates its smart grid automated power restoration network has helped customers avoid 100 million minutes in the dark while preventing 1 million outages.

“Being able to immediately pinpoint outage locations and instantly reroute power to reduce the footprint of the outage is a game changer,” Nixon said.

In the same vein, Met-Ed has engineers working to identify the best locations for TripSavers, which can sense a problem and temporarily interrupt the power before equipment is damaged. Twenty-six of the devices, which work like a circuit-breaker and can re-energize a power line in seconds, are scheduled for installation in the Easton area in 2020.

Improvement plans will continue with the knowledge that tropical storms, or even a strong afternoon thunderstorm, can do a lot of damage to homes and the power grid. Knowing the risks and being prepared can lessen the impact.

“National Preparedness Month is important because it gives us the time to really focus the nation and the citizens of Pennsylvania on preparedness,” said Randy Padfield, director of Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency, in a video shared by ReadyPA.

To learn more about National Preparedness Month, visit https://www.ready.gov/september.

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(c)2020 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Visit The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) at www.mcall.com

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