Undergrounding power lines in the Town of Chevy Chase would likely be a very expensive process, but just how expensive is unknown until the Town, in conjunction with Pepco and other utilities, conducts detailed engineering studies.
That was the general conclusion from a group of four electric utility experts who spoke on Thursday about the prospect of undergrounding in a Town of Chevy Chase public meeting.
The idea of undergrounding the Town’s power lines has been floated as a way to avoid the downed line power outages that have hit the one-square mile area in the past. But even with a roughly $8 million budget surplus, burying lines for 10 miles of road and a little more than 1,000 single family homes seemed less and less practical as the meeting went on.
The ballpark estimate for undergrounding power lines in an area like the Town is between $1 million and $5 million per mile, energy consultant Ken Hall said. That wide-ranging estimate doesn’t include the cost of labor, which would be relatively higher in the D.C. area, or the cost to connect to each house, Hall said.
A report from Town Councilmembers Al Lang and John Bickerman estimated the cost of undergrounding power lines would range from $313,300 per mile to $2,420,000 per mile. The report also said there would be a roughly $1,500 cost per household to changing the connection for each home, though Councilmember David Lublin claimed that was based on data that is 15 years old.
Hall said the only way to know what undergrounding would cost in the Town would be for the Town to pay for an engineering study. All sorts of factors — terrain, digging techniques, whether the lines would be buried below the street or below front lawns — come into play.
What is clear is that the Town wouldn’t get help paying for the undergrounding from Pepco and Town residents would still be subject to Pepco rate increases the company claims are necessary for systemwide above-ground repairs.
Pepco public affairs manager Charles Washington said the utility proposed the idea of a test undergrounding program to the Maryland Public Services Commission in a recent rate case. But after the PSC deemed Pepco should focus on improving and maintaining its existing infrastucture, Pepco is unlikely to pitch in for any undergrounding projects.
“At this time, we are back to the idea that if a community wants to underground, that community would need to find the funds,” Washington said.
The report from Bickerman and Lang said “the unassailable conclusion is that customers with underground service will be without power for far less time and far less frequently than those with overhead service.”
The experts said that conclusion wasn’t so unassailable, backing up other studies that say underground power systems have less frequent outages, but longer durations of outages because the underground cables are harder to reach and faults are more difficult to isolate.
“It’s not the silver bullet to solve all reliability problems,” said Fred Hoover, from the state’s Maryland Energy Administration.
“Undergrounding certainly will, in those storm-type situations, improve reliability and reduce the outages,” said Pepco reliability manager Gary Keeler. “Typically, underground systems see a higher maintenance cost, access and repair times. It typically takes a bit longer. If there’s water in the manhole, you have to pump it out. If there’s a cable failure, trying to isolate where it is takes longer than finding a downed wire or a blown fuse.”
Bickerman, no stranger to verbal confrontations with his fellow councilmembers, often interrupted the panel and made it clear he believes the Town should undertake undergrounding. Lublin made it clear he wasn’t on board. Twice during the meeting, the two attempted to ask questions over each other.
On the request of the Council, Washington said Pepco will attempt to find specific data as to the number, locations and severity of downed wire-caused power outages in the Town of Chevy Chase.