November 1st, 2012

Should Northeast power lines be buried?

And the answer is: maybe.

[Hat tip: Instapundit.]

30 Responses to “Should Northeast power lines be buried?”

  1. Sparkey Says:

    IIRC, Bush wanted to upgrade the N. E. Grid but Democrats protested that Bush/Cheney cronies benefit. Haliburton!!!!


  2. Paul A'Barge Says:

    the North East should be disowned.

    It’s a political waste land. Move to Texas.

  3. Artfldgr Says:

    they would love the power grab of having to evict people all along the line so as to dig… eminent domain lawyers would squeal and sacrifice to their lords for the gift of such bounty.

    of course… repair time and locating a problem and fixing it will be exponentially more expensive, and destructive…

  4. roc scssrs Says:

    I can say that our underground wires certainly make the neighborhood look nicer. But as the article points out, almost inevitably your system has to go above ground somewhere. We were fine this year with Sandy, but Irene blew up an above-ground transformer last year and we were in the dark.

  5. Artfldgr Says:

    just an off topic reminder given how we forget, and the news looks the other way..

    Poland found explosives on wreckage of president’s plane-report

    President Lech Kaczynski and political and military leaders died in the crash. this was the crash that someone also posted video to youtube as to gunshots, and who was stabbed to death.

    Footage of Polish air crash ‘shows Russians executing survivors’… but is it a vile propaganda stunt?

    we return to a thread asking to spend billions we dont have to do projects to replace what we have (and such a replacement will have to be replaced again given future trends in power). 🙂

  6. Charles Says:

    Hmm, above ground – trees get in the way; below ground, water and other utilities digging causes problems.

    Here’s an idea – how about, no matter where you put the wires the utilities do proper maintenance on them?

    Or is it just cheaper to not do maintenance and have the feds pay for emergency repairs after thousands are left without power for days/weeks on end?

  7. John Dough Says:

    As long as the end users pay for the work to place power underground…..I’m all for it.

    I don’t want to fund another another Boston “BIG DIG” cost overrun debacle.

  8. southpaw Says:

    The left-handed electrical engineer’s position is yes- in a lot of places they currently are not, they should be. The article raises some good points, but proper engineering can mitigate a lot of the downsides associated with underground cables. I followed the links back through the Con-Ed story about the outages in Queens. The Popular Mechanics article implies that the fact the cables were underground had something to do with the problem; but reading the the Con-Ed explanation, the failure(s) were classic SNAFU for a grid. They got an overload and/or short, and their protective systems were improperly coordinated to clear the fault. This happens above ground too when the engineers screw up. But Con-Ed went on to blab about all the money they invested in upgrades and so on; the problem wasn’t money, it was bad engineering.
    That said, I agree it’s not a great idea across the board – there are definitely places it doesn’t make sense — like long distance HV transmission. Too expensive and the return on investment isn’t that clear. Those are seldom taken down by this type of weather anyway.
    Anyway my reading of the article and the links doesn’t convince me there is much more than cost as a barrier, except in built up areas, where it’s most definitely a major challenge. But it’s not impossible.
    My opinion is the US grid badly needs an upgrade, and this should really be on the top of the list in many areas.
    The cost of installation is on the utlities who pass it on to the consumer; the cost of downtime is on the cusumers. The cost to businesses who lose power for a couple of weeks over a massive area is surely something, but it’s not factored into the studies.
    If you’re going to spend billions on stimulus, upgrading your power grid is a reasonable investment in public infrastructure, but I guess it doesn’t buy many votes.

  9. physicsguy Says:

    As a resident still currently without power in CT, I don’t think burying lines is a practical solution. It would just cost way too much.

    My experience is that most of our problems stem from the utility company not maintaining the lines; which includes tree trimming. On my road (very rural area) after Irene, the lines were fixed by installing some obviously temporary spreaders on the poles. I expected during the spring and summer CL&P would come back and replace those…. Nope, never happened.

    CL&P is becoming a pariah here if the comments I am seeing on the newspaper and TV websites concerning the restoration effort reflect the general Ct consensus. AND, all of us get to pay $0.20/kwH here

  10. Mr. Frank Says:

    Above ground wires are cheap, quick, and easy to repair. As the article makes clear, moving wires underground in established neighborhoods is expensive and messy. The recent storm is a once in 200 years event and yet half the people have had power restored already. What drives this discussion is the inability of people to deal with inconvenience. If your house is destroyed, access to power is not your biggest problem. Behind this discussion is the idea that the government is going to pick up the tab. New York and New Jersey are very wealthy states.

  11. Mac Says:

    This comes up in my small coastal town every time we have a hurricane, usually in a sort of “why haven’t these idiots done this?” tone. This is followed by a discussion of what would be required for such a conversion, revealing the question to be Not That Simple, and things quiet down again. If we ever get tree-felling winds out of the north, as we do when a big hurricane strikes to the east of us, my downstream neighbors are going to be pretty mad at me, because I have a big sycamore that will take down the lines if it falls that way. It’s 15 feet away from them but it’s at least 50 feet tall. Power company trimming doesn’t help scenarios like that. I believe it was Hurricane Dennis that laid a pine tree a good four feet in diameter across our street, and the power lines. though it had not been impinging on the lines at all.

  12. Ann Says:

    Only place I ever lived where there were underground cables was Hamden, Connecticut, just above New Haven — and there were power outages all the time, almost monthly. Not sure exactly why, but I think mostly they were due to accidents of one kind or another.

  13. Charles Says:

    Hmm, Mr, Frank:

    “What drives this discussion is the inability of people to deal with inconvenience.”

    Don’t you think “inconvenience” is something of an understatement? A lot of folks need that power grid to work as that is their heat source, that is their water source. Not to mention, not all of us in “wealthy” NY & NJ can afford to have (or are even allowed, as I rent) to have a back-up generator. What about those who have health conditions that require electrical medical devices such as oxygen concentrators? “sorry, you cannot breathe? well, just suck it up and wait 10 days”?”

    What about those who cannot get to work, and therefore don’t get paid?

    Two family members, living in two separate towns, have both experienced 2 (Sandy might make it 3) power-outages that have lasted more than two weeks in just the past two years – hardly a once in a 200 year event.

    Yea, that the real problem, we don’t like the “inconvenience.”

  14. Ike Says:

    Why don’t we try this: let the people and the utility companies in the Northeast make that decision for themselves? If the people want it and are willing to pay the cost and the utilities agree then let it happen. Sometimes, you just have to say, “This ain’t none of my business.” and let the other folks control their own lives without putting our two cents in.

  15. david foster Says:

    Meanwhile, the natural gas infrastructure just keeps on working.

    In some places, it may make sense for people to generate their own power, along with heat and hot water, from natural-gas-powered generators. Honda (I think it is) sells a very quiet system in the 2KW range for this purpose.

    Generating power in central stations, stepping it up to 768,000 volts or so, transporting it over long distances, then stepping it back down in stages and delivering it locally, while keeping the entire affair in perfect balance….while basically wasting the substantial heat which is thrown off by the generation process…all that makes sense IF, and only if, there are huge economies of scale in generation. If small-scale generation becomes sufficiently efficient, maybe localized is the way to go.

  16. Mr. Frank Says:

    You make a number of valid points. There are some critical differences between the NE and more common hurricane and tornado country. The need for heat can be very serious. Many people rent in tall buildings with elevators where generators are not an option. Planning for medical emergencies must be done in advance.

  17. blert Says:

    For those looking at the video of the transformer arc explosion:

    It’s in stages because after the first blow the utility’s circuit breaker tripped — went open.

    Then, by design, an automatic ‘recloser’ reset the circuit breaker after a short pause. This triggered the second, larger blast.

    The blast was larger because the fault absorbed even more of the energy available from the high voltage grid as things went south.

    Eventually, the circuit breaker tripped to ‘final open’ and the blast promptly stopped.

    Automatic reclosers stop the power company from having to reset their primary loops every time a branch falls across the wires. Most all such incidents will blow clear before the third and final ‘trip out.’


    The cost estimates provided are mostly false: in the last ten years the very same scheme that permits fracking/ whipstocking/ horizontal boring in the oil fields has been wholly adopted for the fibre cable revolution.

    Hence, a Ditch Witch can bore and pull fresh URD cable ( underground residential distribution ) without any serious digging to speak of.

    The above is but a single machine in a sea of alternatives.

    The typical speed of boring is remarkable: far beyond what you’d think. One man and one machine can bore about a mile a week — stitch by stitch — if the soil is not brutal.

    I would believe those numbers if you’re talking about pipe and wire in a light commercial zone.

    BY FAR the majority of outages are due to faults in distribution circuits ( aka Primary Loops ) due to everything from tree branches to automobile collisions with power poles.

    THAT’S why the outages to end users drop so severely with underground power distribution.

    ( BTW, Edison’s first grid was underground. He was forced to follow the same means as the gas-light company. )

  18. southpaw Says:

    Blert – agree. The costs have been inflated to discourage the discussion altogether.
    I am going to catch a lot of crap for this comment, but sometimes, when it comes to public utilities, it’s not a great idea to let “the people decide”. The People have decided nuclear power doesn’t belong anywhere, and they also decide there’s no good place for an overhead power distribution line (not in my neighborhood) and so on. The problem is majority of The People aren’t given all the all the facts to make an informed decision. They’re told “your rates will go up”, and that is the end of the discussion, whether or not it’s true. As long as that is the only criteria, there’s never any reason to invest a nickel in anything.
    While the routes that roads and bridges and pipelines take are subject to some public input, the standards by which they are designed and built aren’t up for a vote. Lets not discuss the Keystone pipeline, another decision by the people in the genreral area.
    If the People today were to decide where to put the Transcontinental Railroad, it would never be built.
    As blert points out, gas lines are buried. They’d be easier to upgrade and repair, and cheaper to run above ground, but nobody complains about the installation price. And gas utilities don’t waste a lot of time warning the public about how much more it costs them to run underground. Powerlines are a hell of a lot safer underground, and every bit as dangerous as a gas line, but people have become used to seeing them strung all over the place, and just accept it. Electrical accidents are far more numerous than gas line explosions, but nobody cares – they’re used hearing about the guy in the hang glider that flew into the lines, or the neighbor was painting his house, and his ladder hit the lines and fried him.
    I would point out how our network compares with a lot of other Western countries, but I’ve already ticked off enough of you. Suffice it to say, we’re not world class anymore, not close. Our ability to safely deliver power really does affect the way foreign businesses view us when it comes to opening a factory or investing in a business.
    Deregulation lowered rates, but this is one case where investment in safety and upgrades has suffered.
    A smartass kid can throw a chain over your neighborhood lines and wreak a lot of havoc, not to mention kill himself. A terrorist group could take down a lot of populated areas with not much more. The US took out all of Iraq’s power grid in the first Gulf War and blinded their cities dropping aluminum strips on their power lines.
    I know I have not convinced any of you, but I hope you will consider some things are worth spending money on. A lot of the arguments against underground cables are based on share price each quarter; not necessarily on what is in the best long term interest of the consumer.
    Safe and efficient power distribution is worth investing tax payer money on; solar panels and algae farms, not so much.
    For the record, I’ve got no vested interest public investment other than professional; I design power systems for drilling rigs.

  19. Ray Says:

    Typical residential distribution line voltage in the US is 7200 volts which is transformed down to 120-240 volts for residential use. That is why you are warned to stay well away from downed power lines. 7200 volt cable for underground use is huge, it looks like a fire hose because of the required insulation. You can’t just bore a hole with a ditchwitch and pull that cable thru. That cable is heavy.

  20. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    Ray: “You can’t just bore a hole with a ditchwitch and pull that cable thru. That cable is heavy.”
    And the NEC tables for amperage are rated differently for air suspension cables vs buried because of the heat that must be dissipated.
    So imagine only a 75% fill of that conduit. And the conduit costs money.

  21. rickl Says:

    My power just came back on.

    Did I miss anything?

  22. Roy Says:

    I live in an area where the residential power lines are underground.

    Our substation is about 5 miles away. The high tension lines supplying the substation and the line down the main road is also above ground. The lines go underground as they enter the subdivision and they supply the local 3-house transformers from underground. And of course, each house feed is also underground. (I have one of those step-down transformers in a corner of my backyard.)

    We still suffer the occasional power outage, usually whenever some catastrophe happens to either the substation or the power supplying it, or when Cletus gets froggy with his backhoe. (A car crashed into the substation once and that had us down for about half a day.)

    We had an ice storm back in January ’09 that had power out all over the state for weeks in some places. Ours was down from about 3:00 AM until they got the substation back up at 8:00 PM that same day.

    Most of the delay in getting power back up for a lot of people is the power company having to find and correct a lot of little problems. In a widespread disaster, naturally, they will start with the biggest problem – a down substation or a down main power line – and then work their way slowly out to all of the little problems – a tree down in your front yard that took out a transformer supplying 3 houses for example. All of that takes time, especially when manpower is short, as in a major disaster.

    I think the fact that my residential area power is underground – and therefore we don’t have all of the little problems – is the reason we have not had any major outages since I’ve lived here.

    I say bury them if you can – especially in residential areas.

  23. rickl Says:

    Here is PECO’s page about how they go about restoring power:

    Restoring service safely and quickly

    Their Outage Map could be more detailed, though. Compare it with ConEd’s.

  24. rickl Says:

    The positive side of an extended power outage is that it gives me an opportunity to thoroughly clean out the inside of my refrigerator and freezer, which I tend not to do otherwise.

    An aside: While I know that raw meat and vegetables should be discarded if they thaw out and/or warm up, what about cooked leftovers? I have several sealed Rubbermaid containers of leftovers in my freezer which thawed, but still stayed cool and I didn’t open them. Are they safe to eat, or should I toss them?

  25. Mr. Frank Says:


    When the health care system and transportation are stressed, it might be wise to take no chances with old food.

  26. Michael Adams Says:

    Mr. Frank pointed out that the very expensive choice to bury lines to prevent a once-in-200-years problem makes little sense. Likewise, people who move to Texas from Northern climes are always astonished that we have no snow plows, nary a one. Then, after they have lived here for a decade and never seen enough snow to plow again, they understand. Life is Montessori for grownups.

  27. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    It’s tough to bury lines in South Louisiana so we adjust and handle it .

  28. sergey Says:

    Power outages are extremely rare in central Russia, where in all urban areas power cables are buried and aerial high-voltage lines have very robust design margin and capable withstand the most terrible weather. In my lifetime there was only one such event five years ago, when short-circuited transformer at a major grid nod caught fire and exploded. This led to a cascade failure, all Moscow region and some near regions had blackout too. This caused complete transport collapse, all railroads halted, all automobile traffic halted too because traffic lights were dead. More than 30 mln people were affected. But nevertheless this 30 ton transformer was replaced in 8 hours, and less than a day all power supply was restored.

  29. John Dough Says:

    Michael Adams says……

    “Likewise, people who move to Texas from Northern climes are always astonished that we have no snow plows, nary a one.”

    We have a similar issue here in the Las Vegas valley. Every flood, transplants from the northeast / rust belt / snow belts wonder why we have no storm drain system, until someone tells them we only get 3 1/2″ of rain annually…

    I pee more than that annually.

  30. blert Says:

    Actually, John Dough…

    Las Vegas DOES have a storm surge drainage scheme.

    It relies upon surface level concrete other than a few spots.

    It’s so impressive that a engineering video spelling it all out was broadcast on one of the cable networks less than three years ago.

    Vegas has a history of getting its 3.5″ of rainfall all at once!


    Modern methods refute the assertion that you can’t pull in URD without an open trench. The oil industry can bore seriously large horizontal holes — whereas a mere 5″ is plenty for URD cables.

    Whereas the old HV primary loop cables used to have a braided – naked – neutral conductor on the outside; today’s cables come with a sheath around the braid — precisely to permit horizontal pulling schemes.

    Depending on the power company, plastic tubing — blue for power — orange for datacom — may be pulled first. Once it is in, the cable is pulled in as if it were conventionally trenched and filled PVC pipe.

    There are literally thousands of horizontal drilling machines in use today — a consequence of the datacom boom — all just as suitable for pulling power conductors.

    Take some time and visit Ditch Witch and its peers. They’re on the web.

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