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American Electric Power : Pro/Con: Should power lines be buried?

10/05/2015 | 05:34am US/Eastern

Oct. 05--About 50 people died when the power was out for an extended period of time after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast in November 2012.

The deaths were from hypothermia, falls in the dark by senior citizens and carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly placed generators or cooking devices, according to the National Hurricane Center.

About 8 million homes in 17 states lost power, according to Time magazine.

This prompted the Edison Electric Institute to evaluate the feasibility of migrating from a system of overhead power lines to underground power lines. It is a subject the organization has been studying as recently as the 1990s.

While not as extreme as Superstorm Sandy, the Crossroads has had its share of unusual weather events with the Guadalupe River flooding and Tropical Storm Bill making landfall this summer. In May, 8.5 inches of rain fell compared to the normal level of 5.19 inches.

In June, 9.37 inches of rain fell, according to the National Weather Service. Although these weather events did not cause many power outages in the region, it has caused homeowners some heartache.

In recent months, some have complained their beloved trees have been butchered because they had grown in the way of overhead power lines.

Critics of placing power lines underground say it is not cost-effective.

Supporters say doing that not only ensures reliable service but also is aesthetically pleasing.

PRO: Underground lines increase utility's reliability

Jared Mayfield lived in downtown Victoria in 2003 when Hurricane Claudette made landfall and brought with her winds up to 85 mph.

"The power went out within 30 minutes, but my folks who lived out in Belltower maintained power quite a bit longer, and their power was quickly restored," he said.

After Claudette, Mayfield renovated a cottage on Santa Rosa Street. He dug a 4-foot trench and paid American Electric Power Company extra to bury a power line so it wouldn't cut across his front yard and obscure the view of the home and its stately trees.

Mayfield said he thought the end result was worth the added expense.

"It was a historical home, but I think it is better to have them buried no matter what kind of home it is," he said.

Mayfield is the city's director of development services.

He said that since the 1990s, the city has required all new subdivision developers to bury utilities, including electric lines, telephone cables and natural gas mains.

Overhead power lines may be on the perimeter of new subdivisions, where major electric transmission or feeder lines are necessary, though, according to ordinance 21-60.

And in the early 2000s, the Victoria City Council tweaked the ordinance to require all new commercial development to bury utilities, too.

An example of this would be the shopping center on North Navarro Street with Johnny Carino's, Texas Roadhouse and Tokyo Grill & Sushi Bar compared to Rio Grande Street, Mayfield said.

Of course, most of Victoria was built before the 1990s, and Mayfield acknowledged it is not only difficult but expensive to retroactively bury power lines.

Right now, the city has prioritized improving its streets.

"I would hate to think that it would never, ever happen," Mayfield said about burying more power lines. "It's just something that needs to be studied, and we'd all need to work together."

Expanding a roadway from two to four lanes often times means utilities must be moved back. Maybe then, it would make sense for the city to partner with AEP to bury power lines underground, he said.

The city of Sugar Land also does not retroactively require existing power lines to be buried.

"Staff also meets early on with large-scale commercial developers to examine planning for power to be the least intrusive and least visible whenever possible," said Doug Adolph, a city of Sugar Land spokesman.

Texas Made Fades, located in the Town and County Shopping Center, was without power for about five days in January after four utility poles were knocked down at the corner of Azalea Street and Airline Road.

Beehive, C&M Hair Studio and Christina & Co. Hair Salon provided the displaced, licensed cosmetologists space to work in the meantime.

Bobby Medina, owner of Texas Made Fades, said he did not know that power lines could be buried underground.

He supported it if it was safer.

"If they put it in our taxes, of course, we'll all pay for it. If I had to sign a check over, no, I wouldn't," Medina said. "I don't own the building. I'm just renting. If I owned it, maybe it would be different."

CON: Cost of complicated construction is prohibitive

Burying a power line is not as simple as digging a hole.

The system of wires to supply electricity to homes and businesses grows more complicated when placed underground.

It is more expensive, sometimes 10 times more expensive, experts say. If burying power lines is not the American Electric Power Company's idea, a customer must bear the cost.

And new residential and commercial developments that want underground power lines must pay the difference between the installation cost and what AEP expects to generate there in revenue, said Charles Brower, the company's director of engineering and dispatch.

The Edison Electric Institute found in 2012 that 34 percent of Americans are willing to pay between 1 to 10 percent in additional costs on their electric bill to have the utility placed underground. But about 27 percent of Americans weren't willing to see their bill rise at all.

Trimming trees within 10 feet of overhead power lines makes up a considerable portion of AEP's budget and happens year-round in this 14-county district. But that still does not justify burying power lines, the company's representatives said.

Trimming trees is less expensive than uprooting them in mature areas of town, for example, Brower said.

Also, most people think underground power lines are more reliable, but they have their own set of problems, such as ants, termites and flooding, AEP spokesman Elgin Janssen said.

And these problems take longer to diagnose because they are not visible.

AEP tries to be responsive to customer complaints about reliability of service, but are at the mercy of traffic and weather conditions when attempting to get the lights back on.

In addition to trimming trees, overhead power lines frequented by grackles and starlings have more rubber protection, he said.

The birds for an unknown reason roost on the overhead power lines on North Navarro Street at John Stockbauer Drive and at Loop 463.

"We don't have an issue when they just roost. The issue is when they all take off at the same time and they cause a rebound," Janssen said.

Roxann Donaghe, who has lived in a mobile home in North Victoria for the past 10 years, said AEP has not been very responsive. When the company approached her about trimming her tree in July, a crew came at the end of August. Then, they took more out than originally planned and left when she complained.

A pole near her home has also rotted to the point where it must be replaced and the company has known about it for at least two years, she said.

"My neighbor behind me said, 'Do you realize we've had 20 outages just in the year that I've been here?' I said, 'No, I quit counting. I don't even reset the clocks anymore,'" Donaghe said.

But she is not in favor of burying power lines.

"Telephone lines are already buried, and we have had so many outages for that because contractors are not paying attention and cutting cables. We had four or five outages in a month from lightning strikes, cables getting cut and what have you," she said.


(c)2015 Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas)

Visit Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas) at www.victoriaadvocate.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

© Tribune Content Agency, source Regional News

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