As an Englishman living in North Carolina, there's one thing I've learned: The United States — and the South in particular — does not deal well with winter weather.
Crazy traffic aside, the sheer frequency and length of ice- and snow-related blackouts were amazing to me when I first moved here from the U.K. More than once, as I've sat fretting about the contents of my freezer or lack of access to whatever Netflix content I was binge-watching (no, I am not very good at preparing for snowpocalypse), I've found myself asking:
Why doesn't the U.S. bury its power lines?
It turns out I'm not alone.
Burying power lines is expensive
And the simple answer, it seems, is that burying power lines is considerably more expensive than you might think. As reported in this CNN article on the topic, North Carolina's Utility Commission looked into burying power lines after more than 2 million homes were left without electricity in the storms of 2002. They found, however, that the project would cost $41 billion, take 25 years to complete, and would require nearly doubling customers' electricity rates to pay for it — leading the commission to conclude that it would simply be "prohibitively expensive."
Access and longevity are a concern
The upfront cost of "undergrounding" power lines isn't the only con. According to this Wikipedia entry on the practice, other disadvantages include a shorter shelf life for cables, the danger of them being accidentally damaged by road construction or other digging, vulnerability to floods and the fact that if damages do occur, repairs can take considerably longer than overhead cables.
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That said, there are advantages too. Some communities are advocating burying cables simply for aesthetic reasons. My own hometown of Durham, North Carolina, is now chopping down or severely pruning its beautiful street trees because they interfere with power lines. (Apparently, when Durham's many willow oaks were planted, city planners assumed power lines would be eventually buried.)
Undergrounding as long-term investment, and as economic stimulus
Political commentator David Frum has made a strong case for burying power lines, arguing that utilities' cost estimates are over-inflated (a U.K. study suggested a premium of five times the cost of overhead lines, not 10); that resilience to storms is increasingly important in a changing climate; and that because U.S. cities are becoming more dense, we can expect costs per mile to come down and the feasibility of undergrounding to improve. Frum also argued that undergrounding would be exactly the kind of job-creating initiative that governments should undertake during economic downturns, taking advantage of low interest rates to upgrade our infrastructure, shore up our communities against the threat of climate change and put many Americans back to work. (Indeed, burying power lines is one of the ways cities are preparing themselves for climate change.)
It seems unlikely that large-scale undergrounding will take off anytime soon, at least not in existing communities. But burying power lines in new communities is a lot more commonplace, and considerably cheaper than replacing already existing infrastructure. It may be that we will gradually see a shift to underground lines over the decades, but for now I should plan on preparing for the next snowpocalypse.
And, in case you were wondering what that looks like, here's a photo of Raleigh, North Carolina, during our last big outage which was circulated widely on Facebook... once the Internet was back up and running.
An Internet meme from Snowmageddon in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo: anonymous)