Why do some areas have utilities underground and others above?

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Auditor Nancy Manahan asks:

Why do some neighborhoods have underground utilities? How is it possible ? What are the advantages/disadvantages of having utility poles underground compared to those above ground?

Wildfire season will soon be upon California, which emerged last year from one of the deadliest and costliest wildfires in state history.

Just last month, utility Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay more than $55 million after its power lines sparked two major wildfires, including the Dixie Fire of 2021. The blaze, which burned nearly a million acres in five northern California counties, cost more than $600 million to fight.

Natural disasters ranging from wildfires to hurricanes have reignited debates over whether utility companies should take the initiative to put their power grids underground. However, this process comes at a high price.

“People want to bury them in places like California. But it’s very, very expensive to put into practice,” said Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “So you need resources in this case at the state level to pay for burying these kinds of lines.”

The advantages of above-ground utilities

The high price had a deterrent effect. An estimate by the Edison Electric Institute in 2004 placed the cost of running underground utilities at $1 million per mile, or 10 times the cost of an overhead power line. That gap is starting to narrow, according to Clint Andrews, professor of urban planning at Rutgers University.

Figures from PG&E released more recently suggest that burying overhead power lines underground would cost about $3 million per mile, while building overhead lines would cost $800,000 per mile.

Utility customers pay the cost, so it’s part of everyone’s electricity bills, Andrews explained.

Larry Blank, an associate professor of economics at New Mexico State University, said he’s seen cases in which the cost of landfilling was shared across the entire service territory, even if only one city was required to bury its utilities. Some people, he said, might perceive this as unfair.

UC Santa Barbara’s Stokes said the electrical systems are very old, with some dating back to the 1800s, which means some areas developed their power lines above ground before burial was an option.

While above-ground utilities may be more vulnerable to outages, outages that occur underground may be more difficult to repair, she added.

Geographic circumstances also dictate what configuration may be appropriate for a given region.

“If you live in a rural area where there’s a lot of distance between houses, the cost per mile to get it underground is higher from the perspective of the individual utility user,” Stokes said.

She explained that you might have to do a line for a mile just to reach a house in a rural area. Whereas in a denser urban environment, tens of thousands of people can live closer together.

Low-lying areas with underground utilities are also more susceptible to flood damage, Rutgers’ Andrews said.

The advantages of underground networks

Underground utilities can escape some of the risks associated with airborne transmission, such as some natural disasters and accidents, experts say.

For some areas, it’s better to have facilities underground because of the high frequency of storms, Blank said.

“Ice storms are terrible for overhead electrical. This thing hangs on these wires, knocks the wires down.”

Then there are more minor concerns about the visual blight of power lines obscuring your horizon.

“It’s prettier when you don’t have a bunch of wires everywhere. And that’s an important consideration, especially in more affluent communities or new urbanist-type communities, where they’re trying to go for an aesthetic that feels uncluttered and looks friendly,” Andrews said.

Andrews observed cables running through the streets of his middle-class town of Highland Park, New Jersey, unlike wealthy Princeton, which has utilities underground in its downtown neighborhood.

Andrews noted that dense downtown areas in general are particularly susceptible to underground transmission because there is no space for utilities above ground. “Tall buildings and cables don’t go together,” he explained.

Some cities, such as Riverside, California, have opposed above-ground power lines, fearing they will ruin residents’ views and lower property values.

Studies show that having a home near a power line could decrease its value compared to similar homes away from utilities. The Appraisal Journal looked at sales on the West Coast and found that homes near transmission lines in Portland, Oregon sold for about $5,000 less, while in Seattle the gap price was around $12,500.

While surface utilities can affect housing prices, Andrews said, you also need to consider what public amenities a neighborhood offers, among other characteristics.

Some areas, like Santa Fe, New Mexico, have sunk their utilities to preserve the area’s character, Blank said at New Mexico State University.

“In the case of Santa Fe, you’re talking about a very historic city,” Blank said. “They want to protect the original architecture. I can’t build a building in Santa Fe without conforming to very specific architectural requirements, even grocery stores. »

Projects for the future

While both configurations have advantages and disadvantages, Andrews said, each plays an important role in power delivery.

“I think it would be unrealistic to imagine that we had to tunnel through California to Arizona to replace the electrical transmission towers that go through it,” he said.

However, some regions have committed to modifying their current infrastructure. PG&E is launching an underground project that will cost around $25 billion.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has a budget that includes funding for climate adaptation, which would involve putting utility lines underground, Stokes said. (Although she noted that “to really reduce the risk of wildfires, what we need to do is stop burning fossil fuels and get the climate crisis under control.”)

And in Florida, some utility companies have filed proposals to build power lines underground to protect them from storms.

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