Crossed wires: Why aren't those power lines buried?

Days before Hurricane Isabel struck, a prescient reader wrote The Hook to suggest that burying power lines would make Charlottesville more attractive and– even more importantly après le déluge– eliminate downed power lines and loss of power during storms.

Then came Virginia's worst power outage ever. The Emergency Communications Center estimates 55,000 Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents lost power during the height of the hurricane, and 9,000 households were still without power September 22– four days after Isabel blew through.

With the buzz of chainsaws in the air and piles of tree limbs growing higher, a lot of people couldn't help but think that if power lines were buried, they wouldn't be enduring the discomfort of life without electro.

"I got three emails today," says City Councilor Blake Caravati on Monday, "and three calls over the weekend."

"It's cost-prohibitive to bury all the utility lines," says Dominion Virginia Power spokesperson Irene Cimino. She estimates the cost at "several million dollars a mile."

She also says it takes a longer time to find problems in underground lines because they're buried. The lines, which have to be put through a casing conduit, can be damaged by chemicals and salt seeping into the lines.

Cimino notes that many new subdivisions are going with underground electrical lines, which Dominion is happy to provide– if the developers or property owners agree to pay for them.

And yet, after last week's devastating storm, many powerless citizens are questioning the conventional wisdom that it costs too much to bury the lines. They point out the economic costs to others of being without power: the food wasted, the jobs not performed, the businesses closed.

"I'm not sure that's calculable," says Lloyd Smith, who has been advocating underground utilities for the past 30 years. "I could say it costs a couple of billion dollars a day," a figure he gives as much credence to as the power company's "several million dollars a mile" estimate.

"I'd be very happy to start a construction company and get a couple million dollars a mile to string wire," says Smith. He concedes that a downtown mall area requiring a lot of transformers would be more expensive, but "in Farmington or rural areas, it wouldn't cost that much."

"It's so obvious that if these lines were underground, this would be a different story," says downtown doyenne Kay Peaslee, a former newspaper editor who accuses City Council of caving in to the electric company by not demanding underground utilities.

"Of course the power company doesn't want to spend the money," says Peaslee, "and City Council is such a lamb."

Several years ago, Smith, a member of the Underground Utilities Group, showed councilors the city's 1888 franchise agreement that allowed the power company to put wires over and through the streets of Charlottesville as the duly constituted city authorities direct.

"I told them they could authorize underground utilities," says Smith, a founding partner of the law firm Tremblay and Smith. "I offered the city $5,000 to pay the National Legal Research Group for an opinion. The city attorney refused."

Caravati says Smith's opinion was not shared by W. Clyde Goldman, the city attorney at the time, nor the Virginia Municipal League. The City also looked into taking over electrical service the way Harrisonburg, which runs its own utility, does. But, says Caravati, again, the cost was prohibitive.

As for requiring burial of electric lines, "We have no statutory control over Dominion Power," he says. "And if they go underground, somebody's got to pay. There ain't nothing free. You and me are going to pay for it one way or another."

Both Peaslee and Smith mention that utility lines are buried throughout Europe. "Italy can put them through solid rock," says Smith. "The Netherlands, a country below sea level, buries them underwater."

In San Diego, four percent of the electric bill goes to pay for underground installation, and the utility, San Diego Gas and Electric, claims that underground lines are five times more expensive to maintain than overhead lines, according to the San Diego Union.

Closer to home, downtown Staunton buried its utility lines in the mid-1990s. "It cost us millions to do that," says Doug Cochran, who handles customer service for Staunton. "It was not done for pure reliability. It was more that in the design of a Victorian downtown, electric lines don't fit well."

Staunton used federal grants to help pay for the work, much as Charlottesville is doing at Court Square, where utility lines will soon be buried at cost of $700,000 in the overhaul of that historic quarter.

Smith believes there's another reason power companies don't want to bury their lines: "They don't want to do it because the equipment they've invested in is for overhead."

And a Locust Avenue resident, who asked a supervisor why they couldn't bury the power line being rerouted into her yard to accommodate the bridge rebuilding, says she was dismissively told, "Dominion Power is an overhead utility company."

Estimates of the cost of burying power lines vary widely. Ken Schrad at the State Corporation Commission says, "As a general rule of thumb, it's probably two times the cost of overhead lines, and– depending on the size of the line– it could be three times."

However, a Maryland Public Service Commission report issued in 2000 says underground lines can cost 10 times as much as overhead lines, according to the September 21 Washington Post.

Smith doubts power company estimates. "You never have an independent engineer come and estimate the cost," he says. "You always hear from the power companies about how expensive it is."

He proposes that City Council adopt an ordinance requiring the power company to do so many blocks a year. "It wouldn't be reasonable to say do it all at once," he acknowledges, "but any time you open a street, put in electrical conduit."

Over in Staunton, the power lines to Cochran's house a mile off the main road are buried, and he didn't lose power, though he sympathizes with those who did.

"As a citizen, when your power's out, anything is worth it to get it back on," he says. And he asks, "If the utility said that would cost an increased 10 percent on your bill, would you still be for it?"

Overhead lines are cheaper– for utility companies. Thousands of dirty and cranky powerless residents who had to toss a refrigerator full of spoiled food and who couldn't go to work because their employer didn't have power might not agree.