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Related story: In Takoma Park, idea of public power sprouts

Takoma Park resident Mike Johnsen lost power for about four hours after the June 29 storm that left more than 400,000 Montgomery County residents in the dark for days. To him, the answer is simple: bury the power lines so falling trees can’t cut power.

“We need to be developing responses to how we are going to be adjusting to the changes in climate,” Johnsen said. “If these things are going to happen more frequently, I think we need to address them.”

But to Pepco, the cost of burying their lines could run anywhere from $3 million to $12 million a mile, and studies say underground wires are no cure-all for power outages.

Johnsen said he believes that the decision comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis, but cited increased property values, security, reliability and safety as potential benefits to undergrounding.

“There are tons of advantages for burying utilities,” Johnsen said, who has been a Takoma Park resident for more than 10 years. “We have to think beyond this storm. It’s part of a much bigger conversation.”

By Sunday morning — nine days after the June 29 storm — power was restored to the last Pepco customers who were still in the dark, a company spokeswoman said.

Burying electric utility lines is not a new idea in Maryland, which studied it numerous times in the last decade. The Public Service Commission has also required since 1969 that all new electric distribution lines be underground.

In February 2000, the Selective Undergrounding Working Group, formed at the PSC’s request, found that selective undergrounding is technically an option for addressing substandard reliability of service to customers, but is generally not the best, nor the most cost effective means of doing so.

“[O]verhead lines offer a much less expensive method of providing reliable electric service, which lowers electric rates to consumers,” the working group reported. “This statement holds true even after factoring in the costs of routine overhead maintenance, such as tree trimming, and periodic replacement of infrastructure damaged by storms and man-made causes.”

Pepco opposed burying its utilities when it came up during the PSC’s reliability hearings, according to Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring. Hucker said his office sent more than 500 letters to the commission on behalf of their constituents dissatisfied with Pepco’s performance — many of which urged him to support undergrounding.

“This week, everyone saw first hand that when the rubber hit the road, [Pepco was] not fundamentally able to handle this storm,” Hucker said. “The public deserves much better than this.” He wants an independent cost estimate.

Typically, overhead lines are moved underground for reasons unrelated to reliability, such as aesthetics, the working group reported.

A major consideration when determining whether to bury lines is price, said Todd Meyers, spokesman for Potomac Edison, which has about 25,000 customers in northern Montgomery County.

Maryland’s Task Force to Study Moving Overhead Utility Lines Underground found in 2003 that the average estimated cost to underground lines was about $900,000 per mile.

Today, Pepco’s low estimate at $3 million per mile is more than three times what the task force estimated in 2003, and because it would be more expensive to underground wires in urban areas, its estimate ranges to $12 million per mile, Pepco spokesman Marcus Beal said. To bury the entire overhead system would cost billions, he said.

A December 1999 study by Exeter Associates of Silver Spring assumed a cost of $450,000 per mile to convert Pepco’s existing overhead wires to underground.

At that price, customers would pay an additional $415 per year, at the time an increase of 46 percent, on their electric bills. Exeter performed the study for the Maryland Energy Administration after a January ice storm and a September hurricane led to major outages in 1999.

Pepco has requested a rate increase of 4 percent, or about $5.56 per month on the average bill, to reimburse improvements, on which the PSC is expected to vote July 13, and has met with strong opposition from the county and residents.

In Virginia, the cost to underground the state’s more than 100,000 miles of overhead wires was estimated in 2005 at more than $80 billion or $800,000 per mile.

For customers in the commonwealth, that would add $250 to their monthly bills, said Daisy Pridgen, spokeswoman for Dominion Virginia Power, which serves customers in Virginia and North Carolina.

“Most customers would not want that added cost,” she said. “It all boils down to cost and it is very costly. Customers don’t understand that.”

Undergrounding Maryland’s existing overhead wires is not practical, PSC Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian, said last week.

Reliability has been at the heart of calls for burying wires in Montgomery County.

When it comes to improving reliability, “there is no silver bullet here,” Meyers said.

Of Potomac Edison’s roughly 1,505 miles of lines in the county, only about 37 percent or 684 miles are overhead wires, he said. The majority of their lines in Montgomery, roughly 821 miles worth, are underground.

Exactly how many miles of Pepco’s lines are above or under ground in Montgomery was not a figure readily available, Beal said. He had not responded with a figure by The Gazette deadline.

As noted in the 2000 working group report, historically, underground lines offer improved reliability in the early years, but as the cables age, they deteriorate over time, and reliability degrades greatly in relation to overhead lines.

A blue-sky day outage involving underground wires can take longer to repair as it is more difficult to find and get to the location of the failure, he said. Because the wires are connected to overhead wires, there is no guarantee that homes served by underground wires will not lose power in a storm, he said.

Also, animals can dig into wires, people doing work can damage wires, and older lines have proven that being by buried in the soil, the lines break down over time, Meyers said.

County Spokesman Patrick Lacefield said undergrounding utilities would not make them “invulnerable.” His concern was the price tag.

“We’ve sort of put forward the notion that Pepco should take a very close look at undergrounding and try to figure out where that cost-benefit analysis may be,” Lacefield said. “I think to underground all Pepco lines in the county would be extraordinarily expensive, not to mention destructive.”

Silver Spring resident Fran Rothstein said she got power back July 2, but called the process her neighborhood had with Pepco “erratic, annoying and costly for all,” because she was forced to throw out and re-purchase food. She and one of her neighbors, Ina Schonberg, were in favor of burying utilities after seeing so many fallen trees in their area.

“Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it might not be practical for every neighborhood — but it should be a direction in which the county, state [and] country moves,” Schonberg said.

krose@gazette.netkalexander@gazette.net