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Proposal would put some power lines underground

Monday - 7/21/2014, 5:39pm  ET

WASHINGTON -- When the lights go out, it's often the result of a tree or tree limbs coming down on top of power lines. When big storms, like the 2012 derecho, hit, the outages were widespread and lasted for days. That highlighted the longstanding issue of reliability and fueled a drive to put the overhead power lines underground.

In the District of Columbia, Pepco is proposing putting the most troubled overhead feeders underground. Under what it calls the "Triennial Plan", Pepco will pair with the DC Department of Transportation and put 21 of the least reliable feeders underground. The first leg of the project, which could span 7 to 10 years, would cost roughly $434 million.

On Monday, the DC Public Service Commission --which regulates utilities including Pepco -- kicked off the first in a series of hearings on the Pepco plan.

Gigi Ransom, former ANC commissioner and Ward 5 resident, testified at the first PSC hearing. She wants to make sure that the construction needed to put feeders underground happens with a minimum of disruption. Referring to Pepco and the DC Department of Transportation Ransom said, "The people that are in charge and what- not need to be very respectful and understand they're working for the people, not the contractors."

Keith Foxx, program manager at DDOT, says planning will be the key to making a smooth transition. "Early coordination activities have started. We're looking at the schedules and we're looking at the work that has to be done" in order to reduce the disruption in each section of the city where the feeders will be placed underground. According to a handout on the plan, Pepco will focus on the 21 least reliable feeders in Wards 3,4,5,7 and 8.

Sandra Mattavous-Frye is with the DC Office of the People's Counsel. " I think that this is going to be a really, really good thing -- but the important thing is that there is continued consumer involvement," she says.

Mattavous-Frye took part in the task force that helped generate the underground plan. She says consumers have to have realistic expectations. "It's certainly no panacea. It's not as if we're never going to have an outage." But, she says the days of frequent prolonged outages should come to an end.

Caryn Bacon, director of Pepco Underground Projects, says undergrounding won't be a magic bullet. "It is true when you place a feeder underground it is more difficult to locate the fault," -- meaning the exact location of the cause of an outage. But Bacon adds, "We do plan in introducing in our design some redundancies," that is, some fall-back measures to prevent extended outages.

Betty Ann Kane is chair of the DCPSC and it's the PSC that will give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the plan. "What goes into the analysis is pretty much spelled out in the law," she says. Kane explains that means the PSC will consider things like which feeders will be placed underground and that some questions must be answered like: "Will that make a difference in reliability? Are they [the feeders selected to be put underground] the ones causing the problems?"

The PSC will rule on the Pepco plan sometime in October.

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