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Easy fix eludes power outage problems in US
The Capital ^ | By Chris Khan and Eric Tucker

Posted on 07/05/2012 4:45:55 PM PDT by robowombat

Easy fix eludes power outage problems in US Buried lines an option, but costly

By Chris Khan and Eric Tucker The Capital

WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of storms that knocked out power to millions, sweltering residents and elected officials are demanding to know why it's taking so long to restring power lines and why they're not more resilient in the first place.

The answer, it turns out, is complicated: Above-ground lines are vulnerable to lashing winds and falling trees, but relocating them underground incurs huge costs - as much as $15 million per mile of buried line - and that gets passed onto consumers.

With memories of other extended outages fresh in the minds of many of the 1.26 million customers who still lack electricity, some question whether the delivery of power is more precarious than it used to be. The storms that began Friday killed 24 people in seven states and the District of Columbia.

"It's a system that from an infrastructure point of view is beginning to age, has been aging," said Gregory Reed, a professor of electric power engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. "We haven't expanded and modernized the bulk of the transmission and distribution network."

The powerful winds that swept from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic late Friday, toppling trees onto power lines and knocking out transmission towers and electrical substations, have renewed debate about whether to bury lines. District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray was among officials calling for the change this week and was seeking to meet with the chief executive of Pepco, the city's dominant utility, to discuss what he called a slow and frustrating response.

"They obviously need to invest more in preparing for getting the power back on," said Maryland state Sen. James Rosapepe, who is among those advocating for moving lines underground. "Every time this happens, they say they're shocked - shocked that it rained or snowed or it was hot - which isn't an acceptable excuse given that we all know about climate change."

Though the newest communities do bury their power lines, many older ones have found that it's too expensive to replace existing networks. To bury power lines, utilities need to take over city streets so they can cut trenches into the asphalt, lay down plastic conduits and then the power lines. Manholes must be created to connect the lines together. The overall cost is between $5 million and $15 million per mile, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, Inc., a nonprofit research and development group funded by electric utilities. Those costs get passed on to residents in the form of higher electric bills, making the idea unpalatable for many communities.

Pepco's initial estimates are that it would be a $5.8 billion project to bury power lines in D.C. and would cost customers an extra $107 per month, said Michael Maxwell, vice president of asset management.

North Carolina considered burying its lines in 2003, after a winter storm knocked out power to 2 million utility customers. The North Carolina Public Staff Utilities Commission eventually concluded it was "prohibitively expensive" and time-consuming. The project would have cost $41 billion and taken 25 years to complete - and it would have raised residential electric bills by 125 percent.

An onslaught of recent extreme weather around the country, including heat waves, wildfires and flooding, has increased strain on infrastructure already struggling to meet growing consumer demand. And some scientists predict the severe weather will only increase, though it will take time to study this year's weather before any conclusions can be drawn.

Pepco has contingency plans for dealing with severe weather like tornadoes and hurricanes and runs periodic drills in which staff go through the process of responding to mass outages. In this case, though, the hurricane-force winds lashed the region with no advance notice, creating a type of quick-hit storm that caught the utility flat-footed and for which it had not practiced, Maxwell said.

"That's going to be a very big lesson for us," he said. "We need to understand how we recover from this."

A stress index created by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which monitors the country's power supply to annually assess its performance, shows that day-to-day performance seems to have improved, but there was an increase in high-stress days. The company counted six high-stress days in 2011, slightly more than the three preceding years. Weather was a contributing factor in nine of the 10 failures severe enough to generate a federally required report in 2011.

But utility insiders acknowledge that the math is little comfort when a customer's air conditioner fails during a triple-digit heat wave and the food spoils.

"The industry is getting better and better," said Aaron Strickland, who oversees distribution and emergency operations for Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Co. "In my opinion, I think the expectations of customers are higher and higher because we depend so much on electricity. ... We expect to push that button and it works."

Still, he noted Friday's storms pummeled the region with no advance warning, and "you can't prepare for that."

"You don't see it coming," Strickland said. "It just happens."

Seth Blumsack, an assistant professor of energy policy and economics at Penn State, said utilities are making investments in transmission upgrades but "it doesn't look like blackouts are getting any less common."

"Some studies have suggested that they are getting more common," he said. "Some studies have suggested that they're happening at basically the same rate as they used to."

Though the country's power infrastructure is reliable, it was mostly built between the 1930s and 1970s and is starting to age, said Reed of the University of Pittsburgh.

Bruce Wollenberg, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota who specializes in power systems, said it's hard to tell if extended outages are more common than in years past. But the capacity for high-voltage transmission systems has not increased with demand, he said, in part because of the cost of moving power lines underground and the general distaste for having above-ground lines right outside homes.

"People don't want power lines - period ...They don't like the way they look, they don't like a lot of things," Wollenberg said. "It's universal across the country, and I think across the world. People don't want power lines. They don't want more power lines."

Residents' complaints about the latest outages have increased with their duration.

Kevin Fogg, a barber from the rural community of Jefferson, about 45 miles northwest of Washington, scoffed when asked if he'd be willing to pay Potomac Edison higher rates to prevent more outages like the one he's been suffering through.

"I think it's more than it should be already," Fogg said.

He said the utility company should do a better job of trimming trees and branches that threaten power lines.

"There's a huge, dead tree hanging over our line and they said, 'Well, we're not going to cut it down,'" Fogg said. "It's got to break first and knock the power line down before they'll do anything about it. So I guess they won't do any preventive maintenance - or at least not as much as they should."

Jean Cuseo, a middle-school art teacher from Jefferson, said she's not sure if she'd be willing to pay more to prevent outages, even if that were an option.

"I'm pretty environmentally friendly. If I could live off the grid I would," she said.


TOPICS: Business/Economy; Government; News/Current Events; US: District of Columbia; US: Maryland
KEYWORDS: electricity; electricpower; powergrid; undergroundlines

1 posted on 07/05/2012 4:46:00 PM PDT by robowombat
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To: robowombat

“Easy” fix

yeah right

it’s a welfare program for attorneys to negotiate the right of ways

Then you let contracts to politically connected contractors

Then you get high priced featherbedding union labor to tear up the city and do the work

Yeah it’s cheap AND easy


2 posted on 07/05/2012 4:50:22 PM PDT by nascarnation
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To: robowombat

I think underground lines make some sense, I mean, think about it, how easy, or hard, would it be for falling trees to snap an underground line? Earthquakes and digging up damaged lines would be another story though.


3 posted on 07/05/2012 4:50:36 PM PDT by Morpheus2009
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To: robowombat

I think underground lines make some sense, I mean, think about it, how easy, or hard, would it be for falling trees to snap an underground line? Earthquakes and digging up damaged lines would be another story though.


4 posted on 07/05/2012 4:51:01 PM PDT by Morpheus2009
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To: robowombat

5 posted on 07/05/2012 4:51:49 PM PDT by the invisib1e hand (A Dalmation was spotted wagging its tail.)
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To: robowombat

Another fix, the low-maintenance, fully automatic Toshiba reactor they’re thinking of putting in Alaska. Instead of having centralized powerplants costing several billion along with an expensive distribution system, put thousands of these small plants across the country for a distributed power grid of 50 MW plants.

But our expensive and tedious process for approving such plants proved too much for Toshiba, and the plant that was supposed to be going live soon may never happen.


6 posted on 07/05/2012 4:52:57 PM PDT by antiRepublicrat
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To: the invisib1e hand

I’m an electrical engineer and to me, our above ground power grid is really a bad thing, almost stupid. And did I mention really UGLY.


7 posted on 07/05/2012 4:58:46 PM PDT by central_va ( I won't be reconstructed and I do not give a damn.)
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To: robowombat

North of the Mason-Dixon Met-Ed was severly reprimanded by the PA Public Utility Commission for its slow response following Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003...a storm that had me 96 hours without power.

The PA-PUC mandated a very aggressive schedule of tree trimming and other preventive maintenance plus installing cut-off fuses at the beginning of long branches of the line. Some of my neighbors’ lane strech 1/2 mile or farther, now their lines are isolated at the beginning of their branch lines.

All that has helped. but still endured two 50 hour outages last year.


8 posted on 07/05/2012 4:58:53 PM PDT by lightman (Adjutorium nostrum (+) in nomine Domini--nevertheless, Vote Santorum!)
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To: Morpheus2009

Around here the water table is only a few feet down and would be a real problem.


9 posted on 07/05/2012 4:58:53 PM PDT by cripplecreek (What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?)
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To: robowombat

And if George Bush were president we KNOW the corrupt MSM would be blaming his lack of compassion for oppressing these people (think: Katrina). Meanwhile, St. Obama get his usual pass.


10 posted on 07/05/2012 5:03:11 PM PDT by Obadiah (Insurrection is now an option)
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To: Morpheus2009

Easy... they wrap their roots around them. Tree goes down, roots come up.. lines break.

Newer areas are under ground because even though the above can happen it does not happen as often.


11 posted on 07/05/2012 5:19:27 PM PDT by cableguymn (For the first time in my life. I fear my country's government.)
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To: central_va
"I’m an electrical engineer and to me, our above ground power grid is really a bad thing, almost stupid."

I'm not an EE but I agree.

The $15 million a mile quote smells like BS, however. Maybe in the city or the interior suburbs but how much does it cost to run a ditch digger out in the exurbs where the tree problem is the most acute?

Hell, hire the legions of unemployed and give them shovels. Kill 2 birds with one stone. /pissed off sarcasm.

Seriously, I'd like to have someone break down $15 million a mile. That's $2840 a FOOT to dig a ditch and lay wire. I smell BS.

Rant over.

12 posted on 07/05/2012 5:22:24 PM PDT by SnuffaBolshevik (In a tornado, even turkeys can fly.)
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To: antiRepublicrat
"Instead of having centralized powerplants costing several billion along with an expensive distribution system, put thousands of these small plants across the country for a distributed power grid of 50 MW plants. But our expensive and tedious process for approving such plants proved too much for Toshiba, and the plant that was supposed to be going live soon may never happen.

You hit the nail on the head. I lived in a neighborhood in Baton Rouge during Katrina and Rita. The older part of my neighborhood had underground utilities. My house was just past the underground sections. Due to lack of distribution redundancy and switching, everyone lost power for at least a week during 99 degrees and 99 % humidity.

There are large inefficiencies in Generation (power plant), Transmission (high power lines), and point-to-point retail Distribution (step down connections).

There are better ways, but unless stakeholders demand their unelected bureaucracies stop protecting statist, monopolistic lobbyists, we’ll all be in the dark.

13 posted on 07/05/2012 5:35:06 PM PDT by uncommonsense (Conservatives believe what they see; Liberals see what they believe.)
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To: robowombat

Underground lines crap out too.


14 posted on 07/05/2012 5:37:52 PM PDT by Paladin2
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To: cripplecreek
Around here the water table is only a few feet down and would be a real problem.

Yeah, they are ugly but I can't see them trying to bury them here in my part of the swamp.

15 posted on 07/05/2012 5:41:04 PM PDT by SC Swamp Fox (Aim small, miss small.)
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To: cableguymn
"Easy... they wrap their roots around them. Tree goes down, roots come up.. lines break."

I guess natural gas, petrol, and water should be above ground. Underground works better for most situations.

16 posted on 07/05/2012 5:43:08 PM PDT by uncommonsense (Conservatives believe what they see; Liberals see what they believe.)
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To: central_va

“I’m an electrical engineer and to me, our above ground power grid is really a bad thing, almost stupid. And did I mention really UGLY.”

Most electrical engineers are into communications and computers. The ones that into high-voltage power understand the limitations of running those lines underground for extended distances - which is why NONE EXIST, even for short distances.


17 posted on 07/05/2012 5:47:13 PM PDT by BobL
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To: robowombat
I was wondering about a similar subject. Even if your power lines aren't underground, have you ( the taxpayer/ power customers ) paid for the switch without it being done? Over the last decade, our power company has done marking a couple of times for such a swap but never followed through with it. I wonder how much has been spent on something that never happened. Could people have paid for a swap that wasn't?
18 posted on 07/05/2012 5:47:50 PM PDT by Hillarys Gate Cult (Liberals make unrealistic demands on reality and reality doesn't oblige them.)
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To: uncommonsense

I guess natural gas, petrol, and water should be above ground. Underground works better for most situations.


In case you missed it. here is the second paragraph of my post.

“Newer areas are under ground because even though the above can happen it does not happen as often.”


19 posted on 07/05/2012 5:48:02 PM PDT by cableguymn (For the first time in my life. I fear my country's government.)
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To: robowombat

D.C. residents sweltering in the heat.

OK, but where is the problem?

It would be best to shut of the power to D.C. completely March-October. That would help limit the damage.


20 posted on 07/05/2012 5:50:00 PM PDT by SampleMan (Feral Humans are the refuse of socialism.)
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To: lightman
I got my neighbors together a decade ago to complain to the PSC and get our block's ~50 year old high voltage wires, pole cross ties and insulators replaced and the whole thing given a prune job.

The extension to another block where folks didn't want the tree trimming got a circuit breaker so they don't bring us down anymore.

It's been a definite improvement in reliability.

Buying a sine wave inverter to run off a bank of 12volt batteries and hooking up to the cars for recharging takes care providing minimal 120v backup (has to be manually rigged).

21 posted on 07/05/2012 5:51:19 PM PDT by Paladin2
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To: BobL
which is why NONE EXIST, even for short distances.

Where do they hide all of the electrical poles in Manhattan, and every other downtown city area?

22 posted on 07/05/2012 5:54:46 PM PDT by SampleMan (Feral Humans are the refuse of socialism.)
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To: SampleMan

“Where do they hide all of the electrical poles in Manhattan, and every other downtown city area? “

Those are medium voltage lines. The substations are outside of the cities, for obvious reasons.


23 posted on 07/05/2012 5:57:42 PM PDT by BobL
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To: SampleMan

“Electric power can also be transmitted by underground power cables instead of overhead power lines. Underground cables take up less right-of-way than overhead lines, have lower visibility, and are less affected by bad weather. However, costs of insulated cable and excavation are much higher than overhead construction. Faults in buried transmission lines take longer to locate and repair. Underground lines are strictly limited by their thermal capacity, which permits less overload or re-rating than overhead lines. Long underground cables have significant capacitance, which may reduce their ability to provide useful power to loads.”

This is from Wikipedia.


24 posted on 07/05/2012 6:00:43 PM PDT by BobL
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To: Hillarys Gate Cult

“Could people have paid for a swap that wasn’t?”

Did your rates double in the past few years? If not, don’t worry, you haven’t paid for it (yet).


25 posted on 07/05/2012 6:03:58 PM PDT by BobL
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To: 3D-JOY; abner; Abundy; AGreatPer; Albion Wilde; AliVeritas; alisasny; ALlRightAllTheTime; ...

PING!


26 posted on 07/05/2012 6:08:29 PM PDT by Tolerance Sucks Rocks (Occupy DC General Assembly: We are Marxist tools. WE ARE MARXIST TOOLS!)
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To: cableguymn
I saw your comment and had a hard time understanding your point.

I've traveled over 2 million miles domestically and helped to "deregulate" the 8th largest utility company in the US.

Rural areas, weather new or old, are above ground. Densely populated metro centers have been buried for many decades using large, multipurpose utility conduits. This is the best way and allows for hardening and future upgrades. It can work for areas with low water tables (we’ve had intercontinental communication cables since 1851), but less so for mountainous regions.

27 posted on 07/05/2012 6:11:02 PM PDT by uncommonsense (Conservatives believe what they see; Liberals see what they believe.)
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To: robowombat
$15 million per mile of buried line

Ah! Time for another $2 trillion obama campaign stimulus to get the economy rolling for the unions.

28 posted on 07/05/2012 6:13:06 PM PDT by Right Wing Assault (Dick Obama is more inexperienced now than he was before he was elected.)
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To: SC Swamp Fox

They’re putting new poles in here now.

When I put my split rail fence in I had to put a rock on top of each one to keep them from bobbing up in the hole while I put concrete in.


29 posted on 07/05/2012 6:23:16 PM PDT by cripplecreek (What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?)
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To: robowombat
$15 million per mile of buried line - and that gets passed onto consumers

$3000 per foot - ah the joy of monopolies that can just pass their costs on to their customers, unquestioned.

Of course here in DC $3000 per foot does not go far. First there is the pickup truck and couple of guys to operate the rented pavement cutter, and then the guy to operate the backhoe. But then there are all the supervisors and the guys who stand in the road with the stop / go signs and thier deputies, and reliefs and supervisors.

A cynic might also factor in bribes to the city council not to ask too many hard questions, but I think that is a totally over the top and unfair slander against citizens working for the good of the taxpayer like DC Councilmember Marion Barry.

30 posted on 07/05/2012 6:30:57 PM PDT by AndyJackson
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To: robowombat
$15 million per mile of buried line - and that gets passed onto consumers

$3000 per foot - ah the joy of monopolies that can just pass their costs on to their customers, unquestioned.

Of course here in DC $3000 per foot does not go far. First there is the pickup truck and couple of guys to operate the rented pavement cutter, and then the guy to operate the backhoe. But then there are all the supervisors and the guys who stand in the road with the stop / go signs and thier deputies, and reliefs and supervisors.

A cynic might also factor in bribes to the city council not to ask too many hard questions, but I think that is a totally over the top and unfair slander against citizens working for the good of the taxpayer like DC Councilmember Marion Barry.

31 posted on 07/05/2012 6:31:09 PM PDT by AndyJackson
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To: central_va
I’m an electrical engineer and to me, our above ground power grid is really a bad thing, almost stupid. And did I mention really UGLY.

The big push for underground distribution lines in Calif began in the 60s. Older communities are still above ground. I live in Anaheim Hills, a planned community, we are 100% underground. Malibu on the otherhand is 100% above ground. PCH Malibu has all overhead lines and it's ugly as hell.

There are no problems with earthquake damage to underground. Flooding can cause problems at transformer vaults however. Had to go out in big stormy nights to pump water out of vaults. The overhead crew had a much tougher time.

malibu

32 posted on 07/05/2012 6:38:11 PM PDT by Donald Rumsfeld Fan (The)
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To: BobL

Really? I find it hard to believe that all of Manhattan is run off of medium voltage lines. If true they would have to run a lot of them into the city.

That said, the high voltage lines on the giant towers aren’t generally where the power outages occur, as the trees are below those lines and can’t fall on them.


33 posted on 07/05/2012 6:50:43 PM PDT by SampleMan (Feral Humans are the refuse of socialism.)
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To: Morpheus2009

Those overhead transmission lines will be cheaper. The ambient cooling of the air is verses building tunnels with cooling systems to string transmission lines.


34 posted on 07/05/2012 6:53:15 PM PDT by the_daug
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To: Paladin2
Underground lines crap out too.

More reliable than overhead.

Cables run thru PVC. Conductors are sealed in lead casing and are water tight. Biggest problems are at the underground connection vaults where they are connected and routed. Underground Vault flooding is a headache.

35 posted on 07/05/2012 6:53:15 PM PDT by Donald Rumsfeld Fan (The)
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To: SampleMan

“That said, the high voltage lines on the giant towers aren’t generally where the power outages occur, as the trees are below those lines and can’t fall on them.”

You’re right. So the question there becomes whether people are willing to pay TWICE what they pay now (for at least 5 years, if not 10 years) to get their existing lines buried, as well as the lower voltage feeders to their neighborhood.

I suspect that if you had that referendum, you’d realize why so many overhead lines remain. They may be ugly (to some of us), but burying them is neither free, nor cheap.


36 posted on 07/05/2012 6:57:04 PM PDT by BobL
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To: the_daug
Those overhead transmission lines will be cheaper. The ambient cooling of the air is verses building tunnels with cooling systems to string transmission lines.

Most all high voltage transmission lines are overhead. It's the low voltage distribution lines, 12kv or less, that go underground.

37 posted on 07/05/2012 7:04:01 PM PDT by Donald Rumsfeld Fan (The)
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To: SampleMan
"It would be best to shut of the power to D.C. completely March-October. "

That's what used to happen.

38 posted on 07/05/2012 7:30:49 PM PDT by Paladin2
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To: uncommonsense
Thanx for using the proper vocabulary. Transmission is high-voltage, and distribution is low voltage. DC area has a load imbalance, generation relatively far from load which makes the power grid less reliable than it could be. See map


39 posted on 07/05/2012 7:37:23 PM PDT by sefarkas (Why vote Democrat Lite?)
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To: Paladin2
Buying a sine wave inverter to run off a bank of 12volt batteries and hooking up to the cars for recharging takes care providing minimal 120v backup (has to be manually rigged). www.generac.com Got a 15,000kw unit after the Isabel outage, runs on propane wih an automatic transfer switch.

Downside is that at the current price of propane power outages cost me $5.00/hour.

40 posted on 07/05/2012 7:37:29 PM PDT by lightman (Adjutorium nostrum (+) in nomine Domini--nevertheless, Vote Santorum!)
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To: SnuffaBolshevik

15 million is probably a low estimate. Underground might be fine and dandy in your subdivision, but transmission lines are another thing. No way are you going through mountains and valleys underground


41 posted on 07/05/2012 9:01:38 PM PDT by Figment
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To: Figment

Maybe I missed it but I don’t think they are talking about putting high tension underground. Around here, the power companies take pretty good care of the tower lines as far as tree incursion and maintenance of way goes.

The overhead residential lines are the ones neglected when it comes to trees. I still say $15 mil a mile is BS for putting medium voltage (~13kv.) underground.


42 posted on 07/05/2012 9:36:30 PM PDT by SnuffaBolshevik (In a tornado, even turkeys can fly.)
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To: SampleMan

The tree line is cut about fifty yards either side of the power lines. It would take a damned tall tree to take one out by falling, but they do become debris in a windstorm


43 posted on 07/05/2012 10:42:57 PM PDT by Figment
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To: BobL

And then there is the matter of burying the lines to the each house, which is a personal expense, and also expensive.

Burying pre-existing lines is expensive, but doing it from the very beginning isn’t too bad.

All of the new developments here have the lines buried.


44 posted on 07/06/2012 4:57:05 AM PDT by SampleMan (Feral Humans are the refuse of socialism.)
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To: SampleMan

Yea, when you get to those voltages underground isn’t much worse than above ground. But like you say, the above-ground infrastructure is there in most of the country - so it will be very costly to move them underground.


45 posted on 07/06/2012 5:09:07 AM PDT by BobL
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To: SampleMan

It’s the old question:

Do you believe in higher taxes to help the homeless? Answer: Sure, we need to do what we can to pull them out of their situation.

Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to help the homeless? NO WAY!!! The government steals enough of my money already.

Sure, people want reliable power, as long as they don’t have to pay for it. What should be done is a serious cost-benefit study of options. Maybe doubling the size of the truck fleet and clearing trees more often and with wider berths would help a lot, and not cost too much. And then that fleet could also respond to outages much more effectively. That is one option.


46 posted on 07/06/2012 5:21:06 AM PDT by BobL
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To: BobL

Yes, I concur.

I appears here locally (no rock to deal with) that the cost/benefit is hit when the lines can be dropped in before building begins in a new neiborhood.

The other cost is that electrical is not the only line hanging on those poles. Cable TV and telephone lines must also be put underground and they cannot all be put together inside one conduit, due to interference and differing responsibilities.

As nice as underground lines are, I’m not willing to pay the 20k required to do it (just on my property, nor would I be willing to vote to force someone else to do it, even if I was willing to spend the money.


47 posted on 07/06/2012 5:29:49 AM PDT by SampleMan (Feral Humans are the refuse of socialism.)
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To: SnuffaBolshevik

Just looking at what’s running above ground in my neighborhood, it would be a freaking nightmare to do it


48 posted on 07/06/2012 9:13:44 AM PDT by Figment
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