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July 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-5


Electricity – Make It, Use It – 24/7/365

Review of Electrical Grid Issues


End-Use Distribution Issues



The local distribution aspect of the total system is generally where most of the daily and/or weather-generated problems occur. Many of these lines are damaged by both wind and water events, in addition to general aging issues such as overgrown trees and broken lines. The recent average growth rate of spending on this part of the system is only in the 1.5 to 2 percent range.[46] This is higher than in the mid-1990s, but still not sufficient, according to ASCE estimates.


Because of the distribution and end-user level failures, especially those caused by severe weather which result in long outages, many improvements are needed. One solution is burying the lines, which many places have done and are doing as they upgrade.


Benefits include less maintenance, less weather damage, unobstructed views, and reduced risk to animals, according to a study done in the European Union. On the downside, these lines cost more to install and have longer repair times, up to five times longer according to that study. The lines were described as being more “complex” and “time consuming” to repair, even if repairs are done less often.


Underground lines also have a shorter overall lifespan, even without damage incidents. Additionally, buried lines are more likely to overheat because the heat cannot “dissipate into the air.”[47] One solution to that specific issue might be installing water lines parallel to the electric lines to take advantage of the heat.


A 2012 study by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) on overhead versus underground lines found many considerations on both sides of the issue. They also found that while one out of four customers are willing to pay as much 20 percent more for electricity as a result of burying the lines, and another 50 percent were willing to pay 10 percent more, virtually no one was willing to pay the more “realistic” 100 percent estimated cost increase.[48]


Cost estimates reported by the EEI show that construction costs for these distribution lines are five to ten times more expensive than comparable overhead lines. It is most cost effective to install underground lines during new construction, versus retrofitting – which can cause significant property (trees, walls, and fences) and traffic disruption, as well as re-wiring costs.


The general EEI recommendation is that communities look at the issue on a case-by-case basis – evaluating historic and potential severe weather damage, overall susceptibility to outages, number of customers, and actual costs.


In recovering from Hurricane Sandy, actions being taken by ConEd include burying 30 miles of the most vulnerable overhead lines between now and 2016 at a cost of $200 million. To take all 35,000 miles of ConEd’s lines underground would cost approximately $60 billion.[49]


Yet, as was found in places were the lines were already buried, flooding and water damage can still cause problems.




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