Fayette County

Why not just bury them?

"Bury the Damned Power Lines Already."

A group with that name sprang up on the social networking site Facebook a week and a half ago, shortly after ice-laden trees started crashing through the lines that carried electricity to more than 700,000 Kentucky homes and businesses.

The group quickly grew to more than 1,000 members, most from Louisville and Lexington, but at least one from as far away as Australia.

Some of the early postings bashed utility companies for allowing bad weather to create the state's largest-ever natural disaster.

But the discussion soon turned more thoughtful. Some suggested that putting power lines underground would be an excellent "shovel-ready" project for the economic stimulus package being debated in Washington. Others argued that personal costs, such as spoiled food and the purchase of generators, should be added to the equation of whether overhead lines should be buried. There was a thread debating whether electric utilities should be publicly owned.

A recurring theme: if people want power lines buried, they should be willing to pay.

As it turns out, that can be a staggeringly expensive proposition.

And, although stringing lines on poles dates back to the late 1800s, there doesn't appear to be a practical 21st-century energy delivery system on the horizon that doesn't require running a line into your house.

A 2006 study by the Edison Electric Institute, an association of utilities, looked at previous studies and performance records. The bottom line: burying lines can cost $1 million a mile — about 10 times the cost of overhead lines. That could drive electric rates up 80 percent to 125 percent.

And those estimates might be low.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission has estimated that it could cost $3 million a mile. For that entire state, it said, the job could cost $41 billion and take 25 years.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission has conducted no such study here.

Andrew Melnykovych, the commission's public information officer, said that even with the power outages caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ike last September and the worse problems caused by the ice storm, "you still have to question whether it is cost-effective to bury lines to avoid these kind of outages."

Lexington was mostly spared by Ike, and the costs of the recent storm have not been compiled.

But the ice storm that paralyzed the city in 2003, knocking out power to more than 130,000 homes and businesses, ended up costing Kentucky Utilities $23 million in repairs.

KU has 2,900 miles of overhead distribution lines in Lexington's urban services area. At the $1 million-a-mile estimate, burying the lines could equal the cost of 126 of the 2003-magnitude storms.

A homeowner can have the line from the nearest pole to a home buried. But burying the lines for an entire neighborhood — say, for example, Chevy Chase — could be difficult, because not everyone would go along with paying the extra price.

"We could not very well have one house with above-ground service and five houses in a row with underground followed by two houses above ground," KU spokesman Cliff Feltham said.

Even if an entire neighborhood did agree, Feltham said, the lines would have to be above ground somewhere between that area and the power plant. Transmission lines, which carry heavy voltage loads, are even more expensive to bury because they generate heat and need to be encased in a coolant.

Many people see underground lines as an alternative to trimming trees.

But Melnykovych says that burying lines in an established neighborhood could be extremely disruptive.

He advises that people look at what is under and around existing lines and imagine a trench going there.

"People will say, 'Well, if you bury the lines, you don't have to trim my tree.' No, but you may have to tear the tree out to get the line underground."

Underground power lines aren't susceptible to falling trees or limbs, but they are not trouble-free.

The Edison Electric study says that underground lines have fewer power outages. But when they happen, they tend to last a lot longer.

The study's "bottom line" is that the reliability is uncertain and not worth the cost.

The most "substantial benefit" of burying lines, the study says, is improved aesthetics.

There are some moves toward putting existing lines underground.

In North Carolina, the utilities commission gave Duke Energy the go-ahead for a pilot program in three towns. Duke spokesman Andy Thompson said the towns haven't yet been chosen, but it appears that not many lines will be buried. Duke will spend $1.3 million a year for three years, with the towns matching that amount.

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson asked Louisville Gas & Electric last week to look into burying some lines. He said he wanted the PSC to provide a forum. Melnykovych said the PSC takes a broader, statewide approach, but that it would attend a Louisville meeting if invited.

There was interest in burying lines in Lexington after the 2003 storm. An Urban County Council committee discussed the issue, but apparently nothing came of it.

As Lexington grows, however, its electric grid is becoming more underground because lines in new subdivisions usually are buried.

In 2003, 15 percent of KU's lines were buried. That has increased to 27 percent. For Blue Grass Energy, which serves part of southern Fayette County, the percentage of underground lines grew from 65 to 75. Blue Grass has a higher portion of underground lines because it covers more newer neighborhoods.

It is the developer's decision whether lines will be overhead or buried, but they almost always choose to bury them these days, said Chris King, the city's planning director. It is more expensive, but the costs are passed along to home buyers.

Energy alternatives

The choices for getting power into your home are, for the most part, limited to overhead or buried wires.

Andy McDonald of the Kentucky Solar Partnership said there might be dozens — but certainly not hundreds — of people in Kentucky who live in homes that are off the electric grid altogether.

Someone who works hard to reduce the need for electricity and spends $10,000 to $30,000 for solar cells, a wood stove and a propane refrigerator can get by without a power line, he said. Equipping the average home could top $100,000.

Alternative-energy experts see a future where many more renewable sources of energy would be used, but that still would be delivered over wires.

"Even in the future, we will have power lines," said Yuan Liao, who teaches a class in power generation and distribution at the University of Kentucky.

Researchers at MIT, using an idea developed by Nikola Tesla in the late 1880s, have been able to cause a light bulb's light to glow across the room without using wires.

But Lexington native Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center and current professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, said that form of energy is not viable for longer distances.

The military is looking into orbiting solar collectors that could send microwaves from space to positions in, for example, the mountains of Afghanistan, where they could be converted into electricity.

But if that eventually works, Hubbard said, it would be suitable only for remote locations.

The solution to avoiding widespread power failures from storms is tree trimming and education, the utilities say.

Cathryn Gibson at Blue Grass Energy said her company will start stressing the need for clear rights-of-way very soon, while memories of dark, cold houses are fresh.

Feltham at KU said the biggest problems are where "huge forest trees" have grown up along back-yard property lines, and residents don't want them trimmed.

"Now that we have had two ice events in Lexington, it offers us some leverage," he said.