Better Power Grids

07.02.12

Want to Keep AC On? Bury Power Lines.

In my column for CNN, I ask why America doesn't put its power lines underground:

Congratulations: If you're reading this, you have electricity. Unfortunately, more than 3 million Americans this weekend couldn't join you. The sweltering heat wave that roasted the eastern United States was accompanied by terrible storms that have knocked out power lines up and down the seaboard.

While you enjoy your air conditioning, you might want to take a minute to consider: Why do Americans tolerate such outages?

Outages are not inevitable. The German power grid has outages at an average rate of 21 minutes per year.

The winds may howl. The trees may fall. But in Germany, the lights stay on.

There's no Teutonic engineering magic to this impressive record. It's achieved by a very simple decision: Germany buries almost all of its low-voltage and medium-voltage power lines, the lines that serve individual homes and apartments. Americans could do the same. They have chosen not to.

The choice has been made for reasons of cost. The industry rule of thumb is that it costs about 10 times as much to bury wire as to string wire overhead: up to $1 million per mile, industry representatives claim. Since American cities are much less dense than European ones, there would be a lot more wire to string to serve a U.S. population than a European one.

Cost matters.

But now reflect:

1. There's reason to think that industry estimates of the cost of burying wires are inflated. While the U.S. industry guesstimates costs, a large-scale study of the problem conducted recently in the United Kingdom estimated the cost premium at 4.5 to 5.5 times the cost of overhead wire, not 10.

Click here to read the full column.