Monday April 21, 2014 Full Website »

Repetitive Debate of the Day: Why Hasn't Washington, D.C. Buried its Power Lines?

Repetitive Debate of the Day: Why Hasn't Washington, D.C. Buried its Power Lines?
Reuters

The most hated company in America, the D.C. area electric utility Pepco, has been getting its fair share of extra hate this week in the wake of a days-long mass power outage following last weekend's powerful "derecho" thunderstorm. It's a crappy situation for the more than one million homes and business that have suffered from outages across the region, but it's familiar crap. Exactly these sorts of prolonged outages happen at least once or twice, if not more often, every summer in Washington.

Just as these power outages are nothing new, the debate surrounding what to do about them is your basic broken record. Pepco has long blamed the severity of outages in its service area on the high percentage of its above-ground power lines that are situated near trees, especially in upper Northwest Washington and neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland. But the utility has never taken what many locals see as the most obvious step toward addressing the problem: burying the damn power lines under ground.

In this morning's Washington Post, reporter Mike DeBonis does a great job breaking down just how many times local officials have issued calls for a mass "undergrounding" effort, and the singular culprit behind why it's never happened. Money, of course:

The D.C. commission has been exploring the potential of undergrounding since 2003; it commissioned an independent study of the feasibility and benefits, and Shaw Consultants International delivered the report two years ago.

The consultants analyzed three major options: burying virtually all power lines, burying only major distribution lines, and undergrounding both distribution lines and neighborhood feeders.

For $1.1 billion, the study found, primary distribution lines could be buried, eliminating 65 percent of customer outages related to overhead lines. At about double that cost, primary and secondary lines could be placed underground, cutting 87 percent of overhead outages. Burying all overhead lines, including household service lines, would cost $5.8 billion and could prevent more than 1,000 annual outage incidents.

And read a follow-up to the story here.

Top image: Pepco employees inspect damaged overhead power lines to assess emergency repairs. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Sommer Mathis is editor of The Atlantic Cities. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com. All posts »

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