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Some utilities like underground wires

Patrick Mehr, Lexington, Mass.
For the Monitor
August 31, 2011

The Monitor's story "Industry resists buried lines" (
Local & State page, Aug. 30) addresses only a subset of all electric utilities: investor-owned utilities (IOUs). In New Hampshire, these include PSNH and Unitil; in Massachusetts, NStar, Unitil or National Grid. IOUs indeed resist moving wires underground.

But municipal utilities ("munis") - in New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Electric Co-op, Wolfeboro or Littleton; in Massachusetts, 41 including in Concord, Groton or Littleton - owned and operated locally by cities or towns, bury unsightly overhead wires that fail more often in bad weather and otherwise.

In Concord, Mass., which has its own muni, not NStar like surrounding areas, 40 percent of the network is already underground. The Concord muni spends $600,000 per mile to bury wires. But because its electric rates are 40 percent less than NStar's, undergrounding is effectively free.

Europe, many electric distribution lines are already underground: in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, almost 100 percent; in Germany, 75 percent; in France, 33 percent.

Public safety, the economy and our local aesthetics would benefit if IOUs followed the example of munis and of their European counterparts by implementing multi-decade plans to bury their distribution infrastructure. But as long as IOUs enjoy a monopoly, that won't happen.

Lexington, Mass.
(The writer represents the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice.)
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Industry resists buried lines

Problems harder to find underground

By Annmarie Timmins / Monitor staff
August 30, 2011

Irene's wind and rain didn't disrupt one class of Unitil customers in Concord: those with underground electricity lines. It's a good thing because if they had lost power, they probably would have stayed in the dark longer, a company spokesman said.

"It doesn't fail as often, but when it does fail it's more expensive and more difficult to get a repair done because it is underground," Alec O'Meara said yesterday. "When it's (an overhead power line), the problem is much easier to find because it's highly visible. Underground, you have to find the problem, which can take time. And you have to dig it up, which can take time."

Unitil Energy has 260 miles of buried electricity lines in the greater Concord area. While about 2,400 of Concord's Unitil customers with traditional, above-ground electric lines lost power Sunday, those with buried lines did not.

"I don't want to speculate why we didn't have problems with the underground lines," O'Meara said. "But the trouble we had was over ground, not underground."

Martin Murray, spokesman for Public Service of New Hampshire, which serves just four roads in Concord but much of the rest of the state, said he was unaware of any disruptions for customers with underground lines. But Murray cautioned that there may be isolated problems he had not learned of yet.

So why aren't more electricity lines buried? Utility experts say doing so is cost prohibitive and provides no guarantee of uninterrupted service.

After the ice storm in 2008, when thousands of New Hampshire residents were without power for a week or more, the state Public Utilities Commission hired a Colorado engineering firm to study the prospect of burying the state's power lines.

The firm, NEI Electric, concluded it would take 40 years and cost $40 billion to bury the state's existing power lines. The cost would be borne by customers.

Underground lines are less vulnerable to high winds, falling trees, ice and snow, NEI Electric said, but perhaps more susceptible to other hazards. Those include flooding, lightning, rodent and human damage to the ground, and earthquakes.

The consulting firm and the Public Utilities Commission decided the advantages of burying lines did not outweigh the costs, which have been estimated to be 10 times higher than stringing lines overhead. O'Meara and Murray share that conclusion, they said yesterday.

But both Unitil and PSNH allow residential and business customers to bury lines in some locations. They charge the customer the difference between putting lines overhead and burying them in trenches 4 feet deep by 4 feet wide.

"We have underground facilities, including in the urban areas like Manchester. But also we've seen, over years, underground put in place as new developments have been built," Murray said. "In those cases, developers have the opportunity to choose to have underground installed, and they are charged for the cost difference. The developer would pay it and put it into the purchase price of the homes."

O'Meara said Unitil has buried lines in downtown Concord and in residential areas. Like PSNH, Unitil has seen requests come from developers building new homes.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or