In the last five months, Kentucky has faced the two largest power outages in its history. The blackouts have re-ignited discussion among citizens and government officials on what it would take to better protect the electricity grid from future disasters.
The windstorms in September and the ice storm in January knocked down more than 20 thousand power lines in the Louisville area. One week after the ice storm, Louisville Gas & Electric Company spokesperson Brian Phillips watched a utility crew pull one of those lines out of a frozen pine tree near Bowman Field.
“We’re working on jobs now that are a little more tedious and time consuming and bring up fewer pockets of customers,” says Phillips.
That tedium during longer outages has many residents wondering why the power company doesn’t replace overhead lines with underground cables that would be less susceptible to falling limbs. Utility officials have long said the cost would be astronomical, but Phillips adds that there’s also a practical downside to that idea, as underground lines can still malfunction, and repair work can be much more labor intensive.
“With underground you have to dig to isolate the problems and that can take longer and it can also result in lengthier restoration times,” he says.
Norman Morton lives in Windy Hills, where the lines are buried, connected by subterranean transformers. He says no one at LG&E could tell him why his two-year old underground lines went out for nine days after the ice storm.
“I guess we had reports of half a dozen two-man crews and cars coming by and looking,” says Morton. “Not even getting out of the cars, just driving around look. I don’t know what they thought they were going to see. There’s nothing to look at.”
“It is not a silver bullet, it is not a panacea. People who have buried utility lines suffer disruptions,” says Louisville Metro Councilman Tom Owen.
Owen represents the so-called “Urban Forest” area, which includes the Highlands. He favors a multi-year pilot program for burying lines. That way, the power company could work out the kinks and avoid needlessly burying lines in places where overhead transmission isn’t hazardous.
“Buried lines are an excellent idea,” he says. “How to get from an excellent idea to a reality at best would take decades, not years, and require a significant consensus building.”
Duke Energy is starting such a program in North Carolina and Councilman Owen says now is the time to build consensus to do the same here. People who lost power to falling limbs are speaking out, and last week, Mayor Jerry Abramson asked LG&E to present the public with options for improving the infrastructure. Owen says that’s a good step.
“I am not optimistic that in the short term that any significant bearing will occur. But the good news is that we’re going to have the discussion and focus on the cost,” he says.
To bury the lines, LG and E would have to dig up sidewalks, streets and yards and convince phone and internet providers to bury their lines as well. It averages out to one million dollars per mile, most of which would likely be paid for through rate increases.
“When you’re building something new, or when you’re replacing old components, then it makes much more sense to look at undergrounding,” says Peter Fox-Penner.
Fox-Penner is an energy consultant for the Brattle Group, based in Washington, D.C. He says nine out of ten new subdivisions in the U.S. have underground lines, and the rest will get them as the current infrastructure becomes obsolete and is replaced with new technology, which will have to happen if renewable and green energy becomes standard.
“I think it should be done when the power grid starts to be modernized, as part of that,” he says.
Fox-Penner says a full modernization would cost upwards of 800 billion dollars. President Obama has talked about modernizing the power grid, leaving open the possibility that some of that money might be available from the federal government.
But in the meantime, there are other costs. Metro Government and LG&E have spent millions in the last five months repairing damage caused by storms, and businesses and residents have also paid, spending days in the dark while power lines are pulled out of trees.