Can D.C. Afford to Put Power Lines Underground?

It all depends on who you ask, argues David Alpert. Ratepayers have pushed for buried lines before; now, there's reason to doubt it would cost as much as the utility company once quoted them.

2 minute read

July 6, 2012, 11:00 AM PDT

By Ryan Lue


Three days after a storm took out power lines across the region, residents throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are still stranded without electricity – and determined to make sure a little bad weather never leaves them in the dark again. 

But ratepayers have raised the issue of buried power lines with the Potomac Electric Power Company (or Pepco, for short) before, when the D.C. Department of Transportation rebuilt a one-mile stretch of Brookland's 12th Street just three years ago. At the time, Pepco quoted the cost of burying power lines on 12th at $60 million. Yet when residents looked to other jurisdictions that were doing the same thing, they found costs estimated at "$500,000 to $3 million per mile," Alpert notes. "That means the estimates differ by a factor of 20 to 120."

"This reveals a credibility gap for Pepco. The utility
wasn't really interested in putting lines underground, so it seems it
threw out a very high estimate."

While moving those lines underground would have saved one neighborhood from the blackout, Pepco would have to bury its main trunk lines to protect the region at large – which, with a couple small exceptions, it has expressed little interest in doing. 

"One thing is clear," Alpert charges: "unless the PSC starts pushing Pepco hard, wires
won't go underground. To the utility, there's no incentive to invest in
the cost of expensive infrastructure that's more reliable, or just
having more crews on hand to make repairs. As a for-profit company with
fixed rates, their only incentive is to keep costs low, and that means
skimping on reliability."

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