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Maryland Panel Looks into Underground Power Lines

By Stephen E. Mather
Maryland Newsline
Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003

A Maryland panel studying ways to cut the cost of moving power lines underground was pushed into the spotlight following Hurricane Isabel's destruction.

The storm toppled trees onto power lines across the region last month, leaving 1.27 million Marylanders without electricity, officials said. Thousands were without power for about a week.

State Del. Charles R. Boutin (R-Harford, Cecil), appointed task force chairman by the governor, said the group will look at how other states handle underground cables, along with previous Maryland studies. "We want to get some perspective on where it ought to go," Boutin said.

The panel is expected to report to Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly by the end of the year.

A Costly Venture

Moving electrical cables underground now costs between $500,000 to $3 million a mile, depending on ground conditions and other factors, said Sharon Sasada, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas and Electric. Quoting a 2001 power industry report, Sasada said it costs about $120,000 a mile to install overhead lines.

Boutin said he doesn't know whether moving power lines underground is the right course for Maryland. But after seeing lines of Mississippi power company trucks helping to repair downed power lines after September's hurricane, he wonders if underground lines might save money in the long run.

"What does it cost to bring those guys up here?" Boutin said. "How much of that could be saved if we put the lines underground?"

A 30-year-old Maryland law requires underground power lines in new residential subdivisions statewide. Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin said 45 percent of the company’s power lines, which run through Maryland and Washington, are already underground. BG&E's Sasada said 60 percent of its lines are buried.

Most overhead lines are in older neighborhoods.

The 21-member task force, which started meeting in August, must also find ways for public service companies and municipalities to work together on projects to bury power lines, according to the 2002 state legislation that created the study.

Dependability Could Improve

Task force member Alan Proctor, who heads an underground power line initiative in the town of Somerset, acknowledges that moving overhead power lines underground is expensive. But, he said, underground lines would beautify the Montgomery County town and others and might make the electricity supply more dependable.

Somerset asked the Maryland Municipal League to push for a statewide underground power line task force. The league, which represents more than 150 Maryland towns and cities, brought the issue before the General Assembly last year, said spokeswoman Candace Donoho. The assembly passed legislation to create the task force.

Proctor said he believes that moving lines underground could be done more efficiently and cheaply. For example, he suggested that when water and gas mains are replaced or repaired, power lines and other utilities might be buried concurrently. He said this would save on costly excavations.

Boutin said if Maryland decides to move power lines underground, he thinks the cost "is going to have to be shared among a lot of people," including power companies and residents. That could translate into higher power bills and taxes.

Dobkin said if a community wants to move lines underground, the first step is to meet with power company officials and study the costs and the impact the work would have on the neighborhood. Before any lines are moved underground, the Maryland Public Service Commission must give its approval, he said.

"Ultimately the residents and the customers will pay for it," Dobkin said.

Putting overhead lines underground would be highly disruptive, Dobkin said, because crews would have to tear up sidewalks to put in trenches for the lines.

He and other power company representatives also pointed out that buried lines aren’t foolproof. They said underground power lines are susceptible to flooding, sometimes difficult to locate and can be knocked out by lightening strikes at locations where they link with aboveground high voltage transmission lines.

Annapolis Makes It Work

Despite the high costs involved, at least one Maryland city has found a way to move its electrical lines underground.

Annapolis has systematically buried its power lines for more than 10 years, said Emory C. Harrison, director of central services for the state capital. Harrison said it is not cost-effective for the city to concentrate solely on power lines, so Annapolis has a larger project to move all utilities underground and resurface roads downtown.

The project costs about $1,500 to $2,000 for each foot of roadway, Harrison said, which would total about $7.9 million to $10.6 million a mile, He said the city pays for the project through its operating budget and bonds, but receives significant grants from the General Assembly and State Highway Administration. Without state help, the project “would be considerably more difficult,” Harrison said.

Harrison added that while the project has inconvenienced about 150 businesses over the past 10 years, “99.9 percent” of them have been supportive. Some city businesses threw a party for the contractors and workers who buried utilities along Main Street in 1995, he said.

"We try to minimize disruption to people’s lives," Harrison said. "We go to great lengths to work with our merchants."

Harrison said he wouldn’t be surprised if the governor and the General Assembly move to extend the task force's work.

"I think there's so much more that folks want the power companies and the government to look at," he said.

Copyright © 2003 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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