John Stoehr: Planning ahead worth the cost

October 16, 2016 GMT

I know. You probably don’t want to talk about it. It’s boring. It’s costly. And seriously, it’s playoff season.

But I have to ask: Should we bury the power lines?

I thought about this as Hurricane Matthew ripped through Florida and the Carolinas. Many residents are dealing with flooding and property damage as well as lost power, cable, phone, internet — anything running through overhead lines.

If the hurricane doesn’t get you, the power lines might. Some people died in the wake of Hurricane Sandy because they had no power or because of they were electrocuted. Fallen lines also damage property. It was weeks before electricity and other utilities were back to normal, causing many millions in lost wages and business revenue.

I also thought about burying power lines as it became clear Connecticut is suffering from a major drought. Some state officials have never seen rivers and streams at such low levels. Fairfield County has had 35 inches of rain this year, officials say. We haven’t been this dry since 1965.


Trees take a beating during droughts. They get weak or sick. When they get weak and sick, they fall. In normal times, 40 percent of all power outages come from fallen trees and tree limbs. But add a major drought, weak and sick trees, and the next Hurricane Matthew — well, these together have the making of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

To make matters worse, the drought has caused an uptick in the number of emerald ash borers. These non-native little green nasties eat ash trees, which are about 10 percent of Connecticut’s forests. The more they eat, the weaker trees get. The weaker trees get, the more they fall — and the more frequently homes and businesses face blackouts.

All of this is, of course, attributable to global warming. As temperatures rise, we are going to see larger and more frequent storms, whether hurricanes or not. Just as Miami and New York must deal with rising sea levels, Connecticut could prepare for a foreseeable future by burying its lines.

The downside is obvious. It would be expensive. How expensive? One expert found a reasonable rule of thumb would be about $1 million per mile. It could be half. It could be three times. It depends on population and terrain. To put that in perspective, Eversource Energy maintains about 17,000 miles of power lines in Connecticut. So let’s crunch the numbers: 17,000 miles times about $1 million per mile.

Answer: Math hurts.

The upside is also obvious. If we took all those lines floating in the air and put them underground where trees and weather can’t get to them, we wouldn’t suffer a preventable loss of life as well as millions in property damage, lost wages and revenue. We’d have other problems, like corrosion, but not the same problems we have now.


We know because of precedent. Before 1888, the air in New York City was a thick haze of wires. Then came what would be called the Great White Hurricane. As much as 5 feet of snow combined with 45-mile-an-hour winds to produce snowdrifts as high as 50 feet. Railroads shut down. Residents were trapped. And all those wires came tumbling down.

The decision was made to bury the lines. It was time-consuming. It was expensive. But blackouts, which had been frequent, became rare. And today, ConEdison, New York’s utility, has a reliability rating 10 times the national average. And the investment paid off over time. A long time. Like more than a century. While some saw blackouts for weeks after Sandy, New York City had the lights on in days.

There’s another upside. Buried lines means we’d no longer have to worry about fallen trees. That means a company like Eversource won’t have to spend $68 million, as it plans to this year, cutting back vegetation along 4,000 miles of wire.

And it means trees in cities would no longer be hacked into ugly shapes to keep them free of wires. It would mean trees could grow to their natural shape. Burying the lines won’t solve climate change, but a healthy tree means every year 48 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide are in the air.

I know. Who wants to think about this now when autumn is here, the weather is crisp and cool, and pumpkins are waiting to be carved? But it’s something to think about. At the end of the month, baseball will have ended.

But the future will always be with us.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan. He is a contributing writer to Washington Monthly and U.S. News & World Report.