I-Team: The cost of underground power lines

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WILBRAHAM, Mass. (WWLP) – Underground power lines could reduce the chances of power outages during storms, but they can be expensive. The 22News I-Team discovered just how much it could cost to put wires underground.

Challenges to Undergrounding

After a big storm, frustration builds as power outages increase. During Tropical Storm Isaias, the power was out in some communities for days. Most recently, an October wind storm knocked out power to 200,000 customers in Massachusetts.

“We lost power for like a week, 5 days,” Cassidy Bailey of Monson said. “It was awful.”

If the power lines were underground, these major outages likely wouldn’t happen because the infrastructure is more reliable. But, there are challenges with burying the wires.

When a major storm comes through, damage to above-ground lines is easy to spot. If these lines were underground, it could take much longer to get your power back on. National Grid found that if a fault occurs on an underground cable, it’s out of service for an average of 25-times longer than overhead lines.

“Then, you have to coordinate getting someone there to dig up the street and go underground,” said Mike Judge, the Director of the Electric Power Division for the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. “There can be some complications there, too.”

That could mean an outage that lasts one day now could last almost a month if it were to happen underground.

What could this cost?

Another challenge is the high cost of undergrounding, according to Judge.

“On average, it’s two-to-four times more expensive to put them underground as opposed to over ground,” he said. “In heavily urban environments, they can be as much as 10-times more expensive.”

Eversource Energy spokesperson Priscilla Ress told the I-Team that the cost to underground wires could range from $2 to $6 million per mile. Compare that price to a study by Stanford University that found that it costs between $180,000 and 459-thousand dollars per mile for above-ground lines.

Eversource manages about 2,300 miles of transmission lines in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. To convert that to underground lines could cost anywhere between $4.6 billion and $13.8 billion.

National Grid’s electric system spans 8,600 miles through upstate New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont. Undergrounding all that could cost more than $50 billion.

Massachusetts already has the fourth most-expensive electric bills in the country. Undergrounding wires could make those bills go up even more. The utility companies pay for the installation, but Judge explained, those costs could be recovered through customers’ electric bills.

People in western Massachusetts are torn on the issue.

“I think it depends how much it would go up,” Brian Punderson of East Longmeadow said. “If it’s everywhere and it’s really expensive, maybe not worth it.”

“I feel like it would be beneficial in the long run,” Bailey said.

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