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Are Underground Power Lines the Solution?

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Many are calling for more underground power lines after record-breaking power outages across Connecticut for the second time in two months from a near-hurricane in August and a pre-Halloween snowstorm last Saturday.

The idea of burying power lines is under consideration by a task force appointed by Gov. Dannel Malloy after Tropical Storm Irene. It is studying how the state can better prepare for major storms, reduce power outages and restore power more quickly. More than 345,000 Connecticut households were still without power Thursday night from Saturday's storm.

“We know something has to be done, that changes have to be made and standards improved that might include more underground lines,” said Joseph McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County and co-chairman of the S.T.O.R.M. panel appointed by Malloy.

But underground lines come with problems, too, according to utility companies and recent studies. They cite relatively high costs compared with the above-ground grid and say damage to underground lines can take even longer to repair, which happened after Irene.

“They are more difficult for repair crews to locate, get to and repair,” said Janine Saunders, a spokeswoman for Connecticut Light & Power Co. Its website says overhead lines account for 1,638 miles statewide, compared with 135 miles underground, and distribution lines totaling 16,981 miles, compared with 6,280 miles underground.

“I know personally that underground lines are not the panacea many people think – as I live in an area with buried lines and lost power in my own home during Irene for 10 days,” said Saunders, who lives in Windham and watched as repair crews dug up her front yard.

“At least when the lines are above ground you can see the damage, and assess it right away,” she said. “Just getting to the underground lines can take more time. Of course, the underground lines are also very costly to install and maintain compared to those above ground.” CL&P officials say underground lines are more prone to heat buildup, and the road salt used in winter weakens protective wrapping around underground cables.

CL&P places power distribution lines underground at the request of towns and private developers if they pick up the additional cost of the work, according to spokesman Mitch Gross. Installing underground distribution lines costs about $3.5 million a mile, compared with $800,000 a mile for an overhead system, estimates by CL&P show.

The cost of burying and maintaining power lines has been studied by the Connecticut Siting Council, which regulates placement and capacity upgrade projects for Connecticut’s power transmission system. Its most recent report in 2007 estimated the cost of placing the state's 1,330 miles of transmission lines underground and maintaining it would be $27.8 million a mile, compared with $6.8 million for the same length of overhead line.

The issue is far from resolved. “There are issues with underground power lines," McGee said. "But like other states are doing, we will carefully study whether it would make sense to identify at least some areas where burying lines might work better than placing them above ground."

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