Going Underground

July 24th, 2012 by CHHS RAs

Ben Yelin, CHHS Research Assistant


Ever since the violent “derecho” storm hit the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area on June 29, 2012, and left 1.5 million regional power customers without electricity for up to a week, there has been renewed attention to putting power lines underground to better prevent power outages. Dense downtown business districts were largely spared from mass outages because buried power lines were protected from severe winds and falling trees. So why can’t we bury all of our power lines underground? The main answer, of course, is cost, but there are many reasons why at least some investment in underground power lines is still worth it.

Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) spokesman Rob Gould estimated burying power lines would cost $1 million per mile. Burying all of BGE’s 9,000 miles of above-ground power lines would cost an estimated $9 billion, a cost that will surely be passed down to electricity customers. WBAL-TV in Baltimore cited a somewhat dated 2003 General Assembly report which found that moving all power lines underground would cost each Maryland customer $340 to $415 per year, and would take 15-20 years to complete.

However, there are also significant costs to not burying power lines. In the long run, it may be more cost effective to invest in underground lines than to spend millions of dollars after each major storm on power restoration. BGE spent more than $81 million on repairs after  Hurricane Irene, an event that caused fewer power outages than the recent derecho. While the power companies will initially bear these costs, under Maryland law they can hike consumer bills during power outages. Companies also can request a rate increase in future years to recoup losses from power outages.

There is also a significant human cost to a widespread lack of air conditioning. As columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum recently wrote, there were more than  10,000 deaths during a 2003 heat wave in France, where  air conditioned buildings are not as common as they are in the United States.  A prolonged heat wave, combined with the loss of power, may be more devastating here because we’ve grown accustomed to the comforts of air conditioning.  During the recent heat wave that happened while many were still without power, there were 20 heat-related casualities in Maryland.

Frum also wisely pointed out that millions of Americans are out of work, including many who used to work in construction. Burying power lines is a project that could put millions of people back to work. Furthermore, it’s cheaper to make these infrastructure investments now, while we have record low borrowing rates. Eventually, we will need to pay to upgrade our infrastructure; we might as well do it while borrowing costs are low.

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