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Underground lines can inspire sticker shock

Martin B. Cassidy, New Canaan News
Updated 11:31 am, Monday, September 5, 2011
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STAMFORD -- There's an underground movement across much of the country to bury power and other utility lines to shield against widespread outages like those caused by Tropical Storm Irene last week.

Despite record-breaking power outages in Connecticut that left more than 800,000 state residents in the dark, state legislators, officials and Connecticut Light & Power said the damage is unlikely to spark momentum to bury a network of underground lines to shield them from wind or falling trees.

As residents wait days for power to come on after major storm-related outages, some New Canaan residents suggest moving overhead power lines off poles and underground out of the elements, First Selectman Jeb Walker said.

After power returns and the potential cost of the lines is discussed -- sometimes millions of dollars to the mile -- enthusiasm to bury the lines quickly disappears, Walker said.

"It's incredibly expensive," Walker said. "We're not going to propose it, though we talk about it from time to time when there is an outage. The cost is prohibitive and the public doesn't want to pay the taxes for it. Frankly, I agree with them."

State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, a member of the legislature's Energy and Technology Committee, said several Stamford neighborhoods have considered the possibility of underground lines to improve reliability only to balk at the cost and disruption the migration would cause.

"I think everybody would rather we were able to bury them underground," Tong said. "The problem is the level of cost and construction that comes along with it ... It's thousands and thousands of dollars per foot."

CL&P is willing to place local power distribution lines underground at the request of towns or private developers as long as they pick up the additional cost of the work, utility spokesman Mitch Gross said.

Installing the lower voltage distribution lines costs about $3.5 million a mile to set up, compared with $800,000 a mile for an overhead system, according to CL&P.

"We have many inquiries from the towns we serve about relocating power lines underground which typically involve aesthetics and storms," Gross said. "But once they learn of what it would cost them and what is involved, they put those ideas aside."

Connecticut officials could fund an independent cost benefit analysis to verify or contradict the exorbitant figures quoted by industry officials for underground lines, said state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee.

"It would give us real hard data, and it would be independent and not just from the utilities or the groups that favor maintaining overhead lines," Duff said. "I think that a lot of people support undergrounding in concept but the utilities say it is absolutely prohibitive."

The state is in the process of estimating the economic damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has announced a program to be administered through the Department of Economic and Community Development to provide loans to businesses to help recover from uninsured losses.

Tong said there has not been a study that weighed widespread economic losses that might be prevented by less storm-prone underground power lines.

"There have been ongoing discussions that usually ends up with discussion of its cost-prohibitive nature," Tong said. "If it makes sense we can look at it, but that being said, even doing a study in itself is costly and something that people have to make. If they want us to spend the money we could do it."

Since 1996, the state of Connecticut's Siting Council -- which regulates the placement and capacity upgrade projects for the state's electricity transmission system -- has done a legally mandated report on the relative cost of an overhaul of the system and what maintenance costs would be over 35 years.

The most recent report in 2007 estimated the cost of placing the state's 1,330 miles of 345 kilovolt transmission lines underground and maintaining it would be $27.8 million a mile compared with $6.8 million for the overhead lines.

Underground lines have drawbacks, Gross said, and usually experience more protracted repairs during outages because of technical difficulty pinpointing the location and cause of a malfunction.

Underground, the lines are prone to other factors that lead to outages, Gross said.

"Underground power lines are susceptible to heat build-up and the road salt used for ice control during the winter can eat away and weaken the protective wrapping around the underground cable," Gross said.

In the past decade, discussions of underground power lines have recurred in the aftermath of devastating storms in Texas, Florida, and other states, said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, an association which represents more than 100 U.S. shareholder-owned power companies, including Connecticut Light & Power.

Owen said in regions when the geography, weather, and prevalence of trees cause persistent outages in overhead systems, the cost and benefits for burying power lines to maintain regular service might be more in line.

"There are a number of different threats out there that could pose a threat to overhead lines like ice storms and in the West you've got brush fires (and) high winds that are problems for overhead infrastructure," Owen said. "Some of those same threats could also impact underground lines, so there is no silver bullet to solve everything."

Duff and Walker said a more immediate focus for leaders might be assessing CL&P's restoration response in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.

"There are certainly things you could criticize about Connecticut Light & Power but the amount of effort to deal with this amount of damage has been impressive," Walker said Thursday. "Today we had 17 trucks from Tampa and Miami show up to help us. I think that's remarkable."

Duff said of particular interest are staffing arrangements by CL&P of line crews on a full-time basis and through mutual aid agreements with other companies, and whether that number of crews was big enough given the projected damage a storm like Irene might wreak.

"A cheaper alternative is to kind of figure out some kind of minimum staffing for line crews when we have these types of experiences," Duff said. "I don't know what the power company's side of the story would be, but it seems there should probably be some kind of minimum ratio of personnel that corresponds to the percentage of customers out in the state."

Staff Writer Martin B. Cassidy can be reached at martin.cassidy@scni.com or at 203-964-2264.