Overhead versus underground

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power lines

 

As I'm preparing this report, our region is in the midst of the inevitable round of summer thunderstorms. These storms readily grab our attention at Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative because we understand they’re liable to cause us, and numbers of our members, some trouble. The storm-accompanied high winds and lightning strikes represent a combination that can produce power outages. As I’ve noted before, the mountainous terrain that defines the majority (56%) of our service territory makes your cooperative especially vulnerable to these destructive visitations from Mother Nature.

The thunder-bumpers themselves are bad enough. They are, however, just a part of the problem. In South Carolina, we typically associate the damaging effects of hurricanes with our state’s coastal areas. While that’s largely true, intact hurricanes sometimes invade Blue Ridge territory, cutting a path of ruin across the countryside. The especially impactful Hurricane Zeta in October 2020 immediately comes to mind. Then, there are the winter storm emergencies characterized by either heavy, wet snow or excessive coatings of ice brought on by freezing rain. Once again, our beloved mountains play a major role in the creation of those meteorological conditions. The potential for weather-related outages often prompts questions about the wisdom of above-ground power lines. There’s no question that outages are expensive. A recent estimate attached an annual price tag of $150 billion to those service interruptions that occur across the United States. Without question, underground electric cables are generally protected from wind, fire, ice, falling trees and auto accidents. On the other hand, finding and repairing a problem on an overhead line typically can be accomplished quicker and easier than would be the case with underground. The below ground facilities are also sometimes vulnerable to both flooding and dig-ins.

Moreover, what really settles the debate of overhead versus underground is the matter of cost. In 2012, the Edison Electric Institute released a study that projected that customers’ power bills would have to double to pay for burying all those electrical lines. Furthermore, large numbers of ratepayers would face the considerable personal expense of converting from overhead to underground the facilities at their homes or other metered locations. Consequently, I don’t believe we’d need to send out a survey to determine where our Blue Ridge membership might come down on that issue. This report is not designed to bad mouth underground. We have thousands of miles of subterranean cable now installed. At members’ requests, we gladly provide them with underground connections at a price that helps to offset the additional costs involved in extending that service. My purpose in writing is simply to focus on the extra expense associated with underground, as compared to that of overhead facilities. What I further can relate to you is that your co-op is continually building more strength into the system of facilities that brings electric power to your premises. We’re intent upon our goal of getting better at what we do, and that holds the promise of greater service reliability in the years to come.

 

Jim Lovinggood

President and CEO