Despite Higher Costs, Electric Utilities Increasingly Favor Undergrounding

Update EEI Report Says Aerial Lines Remain Far More Economical
By Jeff Griffin, Senior Editor | December 2013, Vol. 68 No. 12

However, there are challenges. “It is worth reiterating,” says the report, “that underground utility systems take longer and cost more, both to install and to repair. Utilities do seek to provide the best service at the lowest cost; however, from a cost perspective, placing infrastructure underground seems to go counter to this basic objective.”

The EEI survey identified several other disadvantages of having power lines and other equipment underground. In addition to higher costs for underground facilities, disadvantages include longer repair times, difficulty making system changes or upgrades and damage from dig-ins.

“Underground cable mitigation tends to be very expensive compared to other types of equipment repairs/replacements. This is due to the labor intensive nature of locating faults and repairing cable, the need for specialty contractors for replacement or mitigation work and the need for additional crew resources to restore customers’ power when a failure occurs.”

The study says one component that is not always discussed in the conversion process is direct costs individual customers must pay to have their electrical service connection point converted. “For most customers,” the report says, “a conversion will require them to hire an electrician to replace the overhead meter base with an underground meter base. In some cases, additional work may be required to bring the customer’s service up to current electrical code requirements.”

Willing to share costs

Surveying electric customers, the EEI reported 39 percent of those responding already have underground services with the figure rising to 49 percent for those living in suburban areas.

It may surprise many that of those still served by overhead cable, some are willing to share the costs of underground – but not all of the cost.

Respondents from across the country answered the question: How much more, as a percentage of your electric bill, would you be willing to pay to have the electric wires that serve your neighborhood placed underground? Participants were given the choices: no increase, 1−10 percent increase, 11−20 percent increase, 21-plus percent increase, or Don’t Know.

“For the entire country,” the survey found, “34 percent of the respondents were willing to pay between 1−10 percent in additional costs on their electric bill to have utility facilities placed underground, with an additional 26 percent willing to pay more. The rural section of the polled participants had the largest group, 40 percent, who were not willing to pay anything for undergrounding.”