Why Duke Energy doesn’t bury more power lines

Why Duke Energy doesn’t bury more power lines

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

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Climate change is causing more storms, more downed trees and more electric outages. Would burying all the power lines improve reliability (and, not to mention, aesthetics)?

Duke Energy claims that’s not always the case. Going underground isn’t a “Band-Aid that fixes everything,” utility spokesperson Jeff Brooks tells Axios.

  • “It’s very expensive,” Brooks explains. “If we were to take all of the established overhead lines and try to place them underground, in many cases, we would not see measurable improvement in performance.”

Why it matters: Outages pose a safety risk. Last Christmas, temperatures fell to the freezing single digits as more than 100,000 customers in Mecklenburg County lost power. Duke Energy had initiated rolling blackouts to keep up with high demand.

The leading cause of power outages is fallen trees. The second is cars hitting infrastructure, especially in metro areas like Charlotte.

Yes, but: Underground lines come with risks: potential damage from water, rodents and animals, plus tree roots and digging. They’re also more complicated and take longer to repair than overheads, which are easily reached with a bucket.

How it works: About a third of Duke Energy lines are below ground. Often, burying wires is the third, fourth or fifth option for improving an outage-prone line, Brooks says. Duke Energy analyzes data to determine solutions for problem spots.

  • In south Charlotte, where there are lots of mature trees, that could mean trimming branches so they grow away from the line.
  • In other parts of the city, Duke Energy may opt to upgrade poles or deploy self-healing capabilities. The new technology restores services during outages by rerouting power from other lines. In Charlotte, it’s prevented about 60,000 customer outages, Brooks says.
  • Sometimes Duke Energy will move just a portion of a line underground to address a problem area.
  • In new neighborhoods, developers often pay the difference to put lines underground.

What she’s saying: Tiffany Fant, a climate justice advocate with Sol Nation, says moving lines underground would help allow the tree canopy to thrive in Black communities the way it does in neighborhoods like Myers Park or Dilworth.

  • “If you look at Beatties Ford Road, we’ll never have a tree canopy with the current method,” Fant adds. “They came through about a month ago and trimmed down all the trees. It’s just aesthetically not pleasing, but we also understand that tree canopy can help with lowering energy costs.”

The big picture: In an attempt to reduce outage times, Dominion Energy is burying 4,000 miles of outage prone lines in its North Carolina and Virginia service area, Axios Richmond reported.

By the numbers: Converting an overhead line underground is about three times as pricey as putting it underground to begin with, Brooks says. High voltage lines can be as much as 10 times as expensive.

  • In the early 2000s, the State Utilities Commission found it would cost approximately $41 billion and take roughly 25 years for the three major power companies to bury overhead lines. Customer rates would more than double.

The bottom line: As a state-regulated monopoly. Duke Energy has a financial responsibility to its customers and shareholders.

  • “We want to be very prudent in the bills that our customers pay,” Brooks says. “We really work to find the right solutions that balance that aesthetic and the experience along with the practical realities of reliability and cost.”
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