Undergrounding may be an option to consider, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution.
It's understandable that "undergrounding" is being debated again, given the fury that Mother Nature has unleashed across the country this winter. And, while everyone understands the disruptions that storm-related power outages cause, burying existing distribution infrastructure is not a cure-all.
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Yes, studies have shown that underground infrastructure does have better reliability and performance. But, it's important to remember that every underground system is connected somewhere to an above-ground feeder line or substation, which can fail.
Underground systems also are not immune to damage, as we saw in lower Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy, when flooding proved catastrophic. Similarly, road salt mixing with melting snow and ice can disrupt underground equipment, potentially causing manhole fires.
When underground systems are damaged, locating and repairing the problem can be time consuming. Imagine if an underground system was damaged now in an area with heavy snowpack and frozen ground.
Undergrounding is also expensive, and the costs vs. benefits must be carefully weighed. A report released last year by Edison Electric Institute found that the costs of burying existing above-ground distribution systems range from $93,000 a mile in rural areas to $5 million in urban areas.
Does this mean the industry is doing nothing to enhance the resiliency of the grid? Absolutely not. Investor-owned electric utilities invested a record $34.9 billion in transmission and distribution infrastructure in 2012 to help improve reliability. Utilities are hardening their systems by reinforcing above-ground poles, managing vegetation, installing underground equipment where it makes sense, and deploying smart grid technologies that identify problems and speed restoration times.
Our industry believes there is always room for improvement; we constantly revise and enhance our storm response and restoration strategies. Providing customers with safe, reliable, affordable and increasingly clean electricity is our top priority. Sometimes extreme weather events pose significant — albeit temporary — challenges. Undergrounding may be an option to consider, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Tom Kuhn is president of the Edison Electric Institute.