Weather-wise, Sunday, June 9, 2019, was supposed to be like Saturday, the 8th – hot and dry. But I awoke that morning to a surprisingly silver-gray sky. And I was startled around 12:30 local time, when the winds abruptly accelerated. Within minutes hot and dry became wet and windy – and destructive. Weather systems, of course, don’t always follow mortal meteorological predictions, and Sunday, June 9 is a prime example. The sudden storm surprised even the most…ahem…seasoned local weather forecasters, as it engulfed the entire Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area. Heavy winds shattered windows, dislodged massive trees, and – as anyone would expect – downed a multitude of power and telecommunication lines.
Literally tens of thousands of people suffered power outages for days; some not seeing it return until the following Friday. Local utility companies had to seek outside help; both clearing debris – mainly the millions of shredded tree branches – and reinstalling power lines. Many businesses remained shuttered for lack of power; thus costing millions in lost products (entire grocery stores had to be cleaned out, for example) and lost time.
One of my elderly aunts had no power for a couple of days and no landline telephone service for four days. She had her cell phone, but as a widow living alone in a small, darkened 70-plus-year-old house, she was frightened. Another aunt and uncle went without power for more than a day. My uncle is old school in that he had stocked up on candles, flash lights, batteries and bottled water – all to accompany a generator and some firearms. If it hadn’t been for that generator, everything in their refrigerator would have spoiled. That happened to literally thousands of people across the area in the days following the storm; including a friend of mine who had no power for four days. Like the aforementioned aunt, he also had a cell phone, but unlike the other two relatives, he has no generator. So he sweltered, while throwing out good food and prayed no one would sneak into his house at night. He didn’t go to work because he feared someone would do just that, while he was gone during the day.
In 2018, a series of catastrophic wildfires terrorized California. The Golden State has become accustomed to annual fires, but last year proved especially brutal – and deadly. The blazes killed more than 100 people, consumed some 1.8 million acres (728,420 ha) of land, and cost roughly USD 3 billion. In at least one instance, power lines weren’t just a casualty of fire; they were the cause. The “Camp Fire” in Northern California was the worst of all the events; killing 85 people and destroying more than 13,000 structures. The town of Paradise, for example, was almost completely incinerated. It all might have been avoided, if some power lines hadn’t been live when they were toppled by high winds. Recently, California’s Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay $1 billion in damages to the U.S. government.
This year has already proven both deadly and costly in terms of natural disaster. Unusually heavy rains have generated massive flooding events across the country; especially, though, in the massive Mississippi River Basin and its tributaries. Records are being broken in almost every state with rainfall and high water levels. Here in Northeast Texas we’re coming to the end of one of the wettest springs since data has been gathered, starting in the 1880s. The heavy rainfall has been great for lakes and dams, but there really is something called too much of a good thing. Flooding isn’t just forcing people out of their homes. It’s also drowning farming and ranch land; flushing out sewer systems; and shutting down highways. And, as always, power and telecommunication lines are among the victims.
I’m fully aware that we mere mortals can NOT control the weather, even though we think we can. As much as we believe our latest digital and electronic machinery, coupled with a ubiquitous cybercloud, can now predict where every hurricane will make landfall and which weather system will cause flooding, we still have no means of controlling any of nature’s wrath. Yet, it’s hard for me to believe that, at the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we’re still dealing with downed power and telecommunication lines for long periods of time.
I’m not the first to speculate openly about this dilemma. A variety of individuals – from average citizens to seasoned utility experts – have proposed interring as many power lines as possible throughout the U.S. One factor, however, always rears its ugly head with each debate: money. Time and labor are also critical elements – which of course, tie back into funding. It seems rather simple on the face of it: dig as many trenches as possible and bury those lines in some kind of sturdy container. But, as the old saying declares, everything looks great on paper.
In 2011, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin published a report, “Underground Electric Transmission Lines”, in which they state, “The estimated cost for constructing underground transmission lines ranges from 4 to 14 times more expensive than overhead lines of the same voltage and same distance. A typical new 69 kV overhead single-circuit transmission line costs approximately $285,000 per mile as opposed to $1.5 million per mile for a new 69 kV underground line (without the terminals). A new 138 kV overhead line costs approximately $390,000 per mile as opposed to $2 million per mile for underground (without the terminals).”
How would any regional or state utility firm fund such an extreme difference? There are at least three immediate solutions:
- Raise property taxes on individual homeowners.
- Raise utility rates for homes and businesses.
- A combination of both
All are plausible, but raising property taxes and utility rates is never popular. If you want to see riots in the streets, starting jacking up taxes and utility rates on people; most of whom already feel they pay too much for such services. I can empathize. As much as we need power companies, it’s a proverbial love-hate relationship. Kind of like what the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia.
Since the turn of this century, technical improvements with cable technology, grounding methods, and boring techniques have made the interment of power lines more possible. That is, from a technological perspective, that goal is within reach. But, remember that everything on paper analogy!
Initial costs for such a massive undertaking would have to go to planning and organizing. We can’t just grab a back hoe and some shovels and start digging. Deciding where and when to dig will take high-level planning from the most experienced infrastructure specialists. Determining how far down to dig is another conundrum, as they have to look for, say, local water tables and even old mining shafts. That alone will take years.
Once digging begins, a slew of other factors come into play: traffic disruptions, power outages and weather. In residential areas, homeowners would have to grant permission to dig on their properties. If they don’t allow it, how would a utility company get around that? Would they invoke the concept of “eminent domain”? Or would they somehow be able to avoid that particular property? And how much would that little detour cost? In any given neighborhood, one obstinate resident could delay the entire project – which, in turn, will cost money in lost time. If local governments force the eminent domain option on someone, the situation might result in pricy litigation. In worst case scenarios, it literally could turn fatal.
Knowing the U.S. federal government – that is, knowing its inability to budget wisely – the national debt could balloon under such a massive project. Our global credit rating – which suffered greatly after the 2008 economic downturn – might, once again, be adversely impacted.
On a national security level, it could put us in a vulnerable position. The city of Dallas, for example, with a population close to 3 million and home to a regional branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, could be in the midst of a major transfer of power sources (that is, switching to the new system) when a monster tornado strikes. New York City could find itself in the same situation when another 9/11-style terrorist attack occurs. San Francisco, home to another major branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, might be in the middle of construction when a catastrophic earthquake hits; much like the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor. Chicago, the third most populous city in the U.S. and home to one of the busiest international airports in the world, as well as a major shipping port on Lake Michigan, might also be mired in a construction mess when a powerful sunstorm knocks out communication satellites. Call me a pessimist, but we have to be prepared for those dreaded worst case scenarios, while hoping for the best results.
And that’s just the planning, construction and implementation of the systems. Time capsules are a fun and delightful project for school kids. But burying something like telephone lines comes with its own set of future costs and complications.
In their 2013 report, “Underground vs. Overhead: Power Line Installation-Cost Comparison and Mitigation”, Frank Alonso and Carolyn A.E. Greenwell, transmission line engineers with Science Application International Corporation (SAIC)*, highlighted and described these issues in detail.
“Maintenance. The cost of maintenance for underground lines is difficult to assess. With so many variables and assumptions final estimates would be subjective at best. Predicting the performance of an underground line is difficult, yet the maintenance costs associated with an underground line are significant and one of the major impediments to the more extensive use of underground construction.
Major factors that impact the maintenance costs for underground transmission lines include:
Cable repairs. Underground lines are better protected against weather and other conditions that can impact overhead lines, but they are susceptible to insulation deterioration because of the loading cycles the lines undergo during their lifetimes. As time passes, the cables’ insulation weakens, which increases the potential for a line fault. If the cables are installed properly, this debilitating process can take years and might be avoided. If and when a fault occurs, however, the cost of finding its location, trenching, cable splicing, and re-embedment is sometimes five to 10 times more expensive than repairing a fault in an overhead line where the conductors are visible, readily accessible and easier to repair.
In addition, easement agreements might require a utility to compensate property owners for disruption in their property use and for property damage caused by the repairs to the underground cables.
Line outage durations. The durations of underground line outages vary widely depending on the operating voltage, site conditions, failure, material availability and experience of repair personnel. The typical repair duration of cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE), a solid dielectric type of underground cable, ranges from five to nine days. Outages are longer for lines that use other nonsolid dielectric underground cables such as high-pressure, gas-filled (HPGF) pipe-type cable, high-pressure, fluid-filled (HPFF) pipe-type cable, and self-contained, fluid-filled (SCFF)-type cable. In comparison, a fault or break in an overhead conductor usually can be located almost immediately and repaired within hours or a day or two at most.
During the extended line outages required for underground line repairs, services to customers are disrupted. The length of customer outages can be mitigated using redundant feeders, but the duration of such outages is still longer than those associated with overhead lines, and they have additional costs associated with them.
Line modifications. Overhead power lines are easily tapped, rerouted or modified to serve customers; underground lines are more difficult to modify after the cables have been installed. Such modifications to underground power lines are more expensive because of the inability to readily access lines or relocate sections of lines.”
As overwhelming as it is, I still feel it’s a worthwhile investment. It’s a long-term process and a necessity for national security and prosperity. Establishing the first telecommunication infrastructure (telegraph lines) in the 19th century was a massive undertaking, but ingenuity and determination made it happen. Those same attributes were utilized with the construction of railroads and again with the interstate highway system. We did it with the lunar and space shuttle programs. Remember, the ancient Romans built the Colosseum in the 1st century C.E., most of which remains standing. But at least they had wheels and large beasts to assist them. The Mayans and the Aztecs built massive stone temples without wheels or draft animals. The U.S., or any developed nation, surely could place thousands of miles of power and telecommunication lines underground.
This series of photos shows the extent of the damage throughout the Dallas / Fort Worth area following the June 9 storm.
*Full disclosure: I worked at SAIC’s Dallas office from 2002 to 2010, first as a document scanner and archivist, then as a technical writer.