Tag: Cables

Deep Down

As you know, Washington and Northern Virginia were blasted with an unusual strong thunderstorm Friday that knocked out power to millions. There are still many without power; a potentially lethal situation given the intense heat wave of the last week.

But could this have been prevented by burying the power lines?

Outages are not inevitable. The German power grid has outages at an average rate of 21 minutes per year.

The winds may howl. The trees may fall. But in Germany, the lights stay on.

There’s no Teutonic engineering magic to this impressive record. It’s achieved by a very simple decision: Germany buries almost all of its low-voltage and medium-voltage power lines, the lines that serve individual homes and apartments. Americans could do the same. They have chosen not to.

The choice has been made for reasons of cost. The industry rule of thumb is that it costs about 10 times as much to bury wire as to string wire overhead: up to $1 million per mile, industry representatives claim. Since American cities are much less dense than European ones, there would be a lot more wire to string to serve a U.S. population than a European one.

Frum goes over several reasons to believe those costs are massively overblown. The most important is one I harp on all the time: costs are only part of the equation. You also have to factor in benefits: needing fewer repair crews, having less down time, fewer people dying from heat waves, expensive food or medicine not being lost as fridges lose their cool, eliminating the danger of downed live wires.

I have to agree with Frum that the griping about costs is more of a matter of industry inertia. Frankly, it sounds like an industry angling for a subsidy. This can’t be that expensive. Both houses I’ve owned had all utility lines underground and neither would be remotely described as a rich neighborhood. In fact, my first house had underground lines courtesy a local electricity co-op. I owned shares in that thing and our finances were reasonable.

This is possible. And it is highly desirable. Neighborhoods without power lines not only have fewer outages but are less cluttered and unsightly. And the danger of downed lines disappears.

This is obviously a local thing, not a federal matter. But it seems like a reasonable investment over a long period of time. So why is it not being done? Why is it not being insisted on? I ask out of real curiosity.