WASHINGTON – After seeing rows of Mississippi utility trucks helping to repair downed power cables in Maryland in the wake of Hurricane Isabel, Charles Boutin wondered if underground lines might save money in the long run.
“What does it cost to bring those guys up here?” Boutin asked of the out-of-state trucks. “How much of that could be saved if we put the lines underground?”
He’s more likely to get an answer than a casual observer: Delegate Charles R. Boutin, R-Harford, chairs a statewide panel studying ways to cut the cost of moving power lines underground.
The 21-member task force, which started meeting in August, must also find ways for public service companies and municipalities to work together on projects to bury power lines, according to the 2002 law that ordered the study. The panel is expected to report to Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly by the end of the year.
Boutin said he has not decided if burying lines is the right course for Maryland. His group will look at how other states handle underground cables, along with previous Maryland studies, “to get some perspective on where it ought to go,” he said.
He said if Maryland decides to move power lines underground, he thinks the cost “is going to have to be shared among a lot of people,” including power companies and residents. That could translate into higher power bills and taxes.
Moving cables underground now costs $500,000 to $3 million a mile, depending on ground conditions and other factors, said Baltimore Gas and Electric spokeswoman Sharon Sasada, citing a 2001 power industry report. The same report said it costs about $120,000 per mile to install overhead lines.
Most overhead lines are in older neighborhoods: The state has required underground power lines in new residential subdivisions for the last 30 years.
Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin said 45 percent of his company’s power lines, which run through Maryland and Washington, are already underground. Sasada said 60 percent of BGE’s lines are buried.
Putting overhead lines underground would be disruptive, Dobkin said, because crews would have to tear up sidewalks to put in trenches for the lines.
He and other power company representatives also pointed out that buried lines aren’t foolproof. They said underground power lines are susceptible to flooding, are sometimes difficult to locate and can be knocked out by lightning strikes where they link with aboveground high-voltage transmission lines.
Task force member Alan Proctor, who also heads an underground power line initiative in the Montgomery County town of Somerset, acknowledges that moving overhead power lines underground is expensive. But, he said, underground lines would beautify neighborhoods and might make the electricity supply more dependable.
Proctor said he believes that moving lines underground could be done more efficiently and cheaply. When water and gas mains are replaced or repaired, for example, power lines and other utilities might be buried at the same time, which would save on costly excavations, he said.
Somerset asked the Maryland Municipal League two years ago to push for a statewide underground power line task force. The legislature voted in 2002 to approve the study, which was to begin in 2003. Ehrlich appointed the task force in the spring and it held its first meeting in August — just a month before Isabel hit.
The hurricane toppled trees onto power lines across the region last month, leaving 1.27 million Marylanders without electricity, officials said. Thousands were without power for about a week.
The storm pushed Boutin’s task force into the spotlight and renewed calls for underground lines.
Dobkin said if a community wants to move lines underground, the first step is to meet with power company officials and study the costs and the impact the work would have on the neighborhood. Before any lines are buried, the Maryland Public Service Commission must give its approval, he said.
“Ultimately the residents and the customers will pay for it,” Dobkin said.