Can underground electricity strengthen urban resilience?
In early January, a storm dumped over a foot of snow on my state of Virginia, knocking out the power. Although urban areas recovered quickly, rural and suburban areas of the state, like where I am based in Albemarle County, went 3 days without heat, internet or proper road snow removal, leaving many many vulnerable people. Power outages due to such weather– not just snowstorms, but hurricanes, tornadoes and heavy rains – plague the country. One way to avoid this is to bury power lines. Why isn’t it more common?
The problem is getting worse in the United States. popular science, outages affecting 50,000 or more customers “became ten times more common from the mid-1980s to 2012.” In the most extreme cases, such as Hurricane Florence in 2018,over a million people lost power. Outages are also longer here in some areas than overseas; one researcher found that in an average year, regions in the Midwest go more than 90 minutes without power, compared to four minutes in Japan.
The main reason for outages is that storms bring down power lines or cause objects to fall on them. Their repair leads to many deaths by electrocution, Remarks attorney Jeffrey Feldman. So it seems good that the lines go underground.
It is rare, however. Since 2012, research by the Edison Electrical Institute finds that only about a quarter of the construction of new utility lines in America has taken place underground. The majority of electrical infrastructure remains above ground.
Florida began to significantly move utilities underground. The state began piloting below-grade construction in the late 2010s, using a method known as horizontal drilling. By November 2020, according to Florida todayutility of the statehad completed more than 160 Storm Secure Underground Program projects in the company’s 35-county service area. More than 53 miles of overhead lines have been installed underground.
South Dakota has also begun this transition. The work was made possible with a federal grant after a major storm in the late 1990s. Since then, storms have not had the same devastating impact on the power grid in service areas.
Similar projects are underway abroad, for example in GermanySingapore and The Netherlands.
But the main obstacles are cost and complexity. EEI surveys have found that most customers are willing to pay a modest premium (10-20%) to cover costs, but not the more realistic 100% premium. the motley fool estimates that burying power lines costs more than ten times more ($750/ft versus $70/ft). The process is also long: North Carolina determined that the burial its public services would be a 25-year project.
Another problem is that when the underground lines To do are damaged, they cost more to repair than overhead ones. This can happen as a result of floods and earthquakes, and the infrastructure feeding underground lines is still above ground. It is also a more difficult prospect in urban areas as it requires disruption of existing infrastructure.
But the maintenance of power lines has its own costs. After Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey’s Electricity Provider spent $250-300 million fix the lines. After Hurricane Ida, Louisiana’s Electricity Providers spent more than $4 billion to repair the damage, asking for $1 billion in government loans to cover the cost. And of course, knocked out households have to bear the costs of using generators and missing work.
A more progressive solution than burying the lines is to use technology that enhances those that are above ground level. This includes have stronger poles and electrical wires; using drones to detect damage and deploying smart grids that help reroute power away from vulnerable substations.
Perhaps the ultimate efficiency gain would be a more compact development, as this requires less line extension and allows individual units to service more heads. Instead, the system we have is for governments to subsidize large public or private monopoly services, which must then achieve distance coverage targets. According to this model, the United States will continue to have oversized energy systems and it will be impossible to achieve true resilience, which means that millions of people will continue to lose power in bad weather.
This article featured additional reports of Market Town Planning Report Ethan Finlan, content staff member.