Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Should We Put Power Lines Underground?

I'm optimistic. It took decades for the District of Columbia to force taxicabs to install meters and turn on air conditioning in the summer.

The call for burying power lines in the District has been going on for nearly as long. There are two main arguments for putting power lines underground: They'll make the streetscape more attractive (there's no denying that power lines are ugly), and burying power lines will make them less vulnerable to storms. We know how the equation goes: major thunderstorm or ice storm = tens of thousands of people without power. Every time.

The argument against burying power lines has to do with economics:  It's expensive, says Pepco. Expensive to put the lines under ground in the first place and expensive to maintain them. (Somehow even cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco that have other problems, such as earthquakes, seem to manage.)

Putting power lines underground would end Pepco's war on trees. It might also mean that you need to rely less on a battery backup.

With that in mind, the DC City Council will be holding a hearing on September 30th to consider just this question: Should we put the damn power lines under the street, once and for all, or not?  (The actual title of the hearing is a little less dramatic: "Study of the Feasibility and Reliability of Undergrounding Electric Distribution Lines in the District of Columbia; and Reliability of the Electric Grid in the District of Columbia.") Visit the Office of the People's Council for the exact time and how to testify. You can download and read the study here.


  1. PEPCO's war on trees may soon be stepped up in places like Cleveland Park. Has anyone noticed how, particularly north of Van Ness St., that PEPCO has been replacing its older ulility poles with "heavy-up" poles which are thicker and almost 50 percent taller? The result is that ulility lines which used to run below the mature tree canopy are in the canopy, and there is more cutting and hollowing out of those shade trees. Neighborhoods such as Georgetown and most of Woodley Park have underground wires and more attractive street lighting. DC should investigate how "best practices" cities are encouraging more utilities to go underground.

  2. I can't say that I oppose putting cables underground. As you pointed out, many cities around the world have managed to do this and still avoid bankruptcy. However, San Francisco and Los Angeles may not be as susceptible to flooding, the bane of underground systems, as we are. This is particularly true in the light of our neglect of our storm drainage system. Even the normal heavy rain commonly floods many vulnerable areas.

  3. This question needs to be checked, but would note that there are several neighborhoods in Washington with underground utilities, including Georgetown and Woodley Park. With Georgetown's proximity to the river and the C&O canal, if flood damage to underground utility lines were a major concern, we would have seen it there.

    One proposal, while a broader policy of putting ulility wires underground is explored, is at least to require "undergrounding" when a street is torn up and reconstructed.

  4. Do a search on the amount of time it took PEPCO to find/fix the underground wires when there was series of fires among them. What you didn't address was the additional cost to locate/repair/restore the underground wires.

  5. Great post! Been reading a lot about underground cabling. Thanks for the info!