7/4/12

Bury powerlines, keep the power on?

7/4/12
I'm really sympathetic to David Frum here, where he argues that America should start burying power lines like much of Germany has:
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.
Frum goes on explaining that Americans haven't buried their power lines primarily because it costs too much. And it is expensive. And he's right that the rewards of having a lot more underground and more reliable power indicate that there is a case to be made for it.

But wow are there a host of issues complicating the matter. Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway thinks so too:
The problem I see, however, is that I don’t think this project would be nearly as easy as Frum seems to think that it is. For one thing, the United States is far larger than Germany and has many more miles of power lines to worry about. A project to bury every single line in the country would take a very long time and, Frum’s reassurances not withstanding, cost utilities a lot of money. That money would either have to come from increased rates, or from taxpayer dollars. Add into that the fact that we’re not just talking about electrical lines here, but also telephone and cable transmission lines, and you’ve just increased the number of potential players by a pretty significant degree. It took us decades to wire the country for electricity.
Getting the utility companies to fork out serious money to bury the lines isn't going to happen easily. Even assuming the political climate is calm enough, it would take one hideous beast of a law forcing them to, while the cost gets shifted on to customers, taxpayers or both. Making this a national thing would take a huge subsidy.

The best way to do this is to do it locally. Have state and local governments require, where feasible and appropriate, new developments to have underground lines, and similarly replace damaged above-ground lines. But even that may not be fast enough, as I believe this is the policy today in many cities.

Since patience is something of a scarcity in Washington, it will take that hideous beast of a spending bill to get most of the country's power lines underground in about a decade.  But let's not kid ourselves Mr. Frum, forcibly taking people's money to hire other people is redistribution of wealth, not wealth creation:
Burying power lines is a project that could put many hundreds of thousands of the unemployed to work at tasks that make use of their skills and experience.

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