Are underground power lines better for hurricane safety?

Underground power lines will keep you more safe from high winds and flying dangerous debris, but underground lines can still be damaged in floods and storm surges

Underground power lines

Are underground power lines a better, safer alternative to above-ground utility poles? What about when we witness a disastrous storm like we have in recent weeks with Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey?

The best way to answer that question is with a yes — and with an asterisk.

Yes, you won’t have to worry about being at risk of electrocution from a downed power line.

There is no risk of electrocution from a dilapidated wooden utility pole falling on you or on your car, putting you in harm’s way. I’ve been an electrocution lawyer for 35 years, and downed power lines and utility poles have been the cause of so many of the lawsuits I’ve brought for people injured and killed — whether they were on-the-job utility workers or young children who accidentally touched a downed wire.

But my asterisk to the question above is to remind my readers that although underground power lines are better, they aren’t perfect.

Underground power lines do have their own set of problems and risks when heavy storms and flooding hit.

Underground power lines shift ‘the risk of damage’

I’ve pointed out in a previous blog post that above-ground utility power lines are prone to outages, physical deterioration and lack of critical maintenance — which have been the basis for many of the electrocution lawsuits I’ve been a part of — as well as dangers from storms and trees. In fact, weather and tree branches — often caused because utility and power companies skip inspections and periodic cutbacks — cause approximately 40% of power outages in the U.S.

One look at the photos of communities that were in Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey’s path, and you’ll see plenty of wooden utility poles that either did come down, or that look ready to snap and fall — the most obvious signs of aging infrastructure and lack of maintenance and investment in infrastructure.

Already, approximately 25% of the America’s power distribution lines are buried, according to an Edison Electric Institute study, while European countries like Germany are putting many of their lines underground.

Yet, as Theodore J. Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, said recently for The Conversation:

“In terms of reliability, it is not correct to say that burying power lines protects them from storm damage. It simply shifts the risk of damage from one type of storm effect to another.”

Underground power lines have their own vulnerabilities

Kury does have valid points. Underground power lines can break down in areas that have greater vulnerability to storm surges and flooding from corrosive saltwater, rainfall or melting ice and snow. Repairing them can take longer and cost more because the lines need to be exhumed, whereas above-ground power lines are instantly accessible.

In addition, accidents such as electrocution and shock injury can happen when someone digs in a backyard and, because he didn’t call the utility company in advance to inspect the area, strikes an underground power line.

Unfortunately, while underground power lines are safer, they are also more expensive. They are worth it to prevent the types of more common shock injury and electrocution death cases that I see as an attorney, but there is no getting around that a more secure, safer and more reliable energy infrastructure will take more money. The Edison Electric Institute reports underground power line installation costs at being 5 to 10 times more per line of mile than an overhead structure. Some of that cost will be passed on to customers of the big utilities.

In addition to the increased costs associated with installing distribution power cables underground, geology in some regions can be prohibitive. Examples are areas with granite rock subsurfaces (i.e., parts of Colorado), as well as those with unusually high water tables (i.e., parts of Florida).

But as I said in an earlier blog post:

“When assessing the costliness of burying power lines, those costs must be weighed against the clear benefits: No above grade power-line hazards guarantees there will be far fewer electrical injuries and electrocution deaths.”

Above-ground or underground power lines? Depends where you live

Kury does acknowledge that underground power lines can mitigate damage from wind events such as flying debris, falling trees and limbs, as well as collected ice and snow. But he adds that restructuring above-ground line systems could be advantageous:

“[A]lternatives, such as proper vegetation management practices, replacing wood poles with steel, concrete or composite ones, or reinforcing utility poles with guy wires, may be nearly as effective in mitigating storm damage and may cost less.”

That may be true, but if the goal is to prevent deaths, underground power lines remain the better alternative.

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