Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Burying power lines is a simple but expensive solution to rural power outages; a new pilot program will try it out

With a goal of fewer power outages caused by downed trees, a pilot program in Michigan will bury lines, reports Joe LaFurgey of Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV. "Many have asked why Consumers Energy doesn’t simply bury power lines to protect them from wind, snow and ice. And for years, the answer has been that it’s too expensive. But now, the utility is changing its tune. Greg Salisbury, Consumers Energy’s vice president of electric distribution engineering, told LaFurgey, “What we’re looking at is strategically choosing areas where the challenge of managing trees is going to be so significant as to change that balance of upfront costs versus lifetime maintenance. . . . There’s a way to do this with much smaller numbers that will have a very big impact if it’s applied surgically."

Belding, Michigan, is in Ionia
County. (Wikipedia map)

Power loss in towns such as Belding, pop. 6,000, is an ongoing winter battle. Resident Chuck Loper told LaFurgey, "First thing you do is buy a generator if you live out on this road. . . . It depends on the weather, but when the weather hits, we usually lose (power) a lot. . . . You could be out for days and you never get a break. They don’t discount you. You get our power back and it’s like you never lost your power." When asked about burying lines, Loper said, “I love that idea. Because that would eliminate a lot, especially out there because you’ve got so many bad trees.”

"Salisbury said burying a line costs five to six times more than putting it in the air on a pole. But in rural areas, where tree trimming and other maintenance is a challenge, the initial investment may be worth it," LaFurgey reports. "Consumers says it has launched a five-year, $5 billion infrastructure investment plan that includes inspecting half of its 50,000 miles of lines and trimming 7,000 miles of trees to reduce overall outages. The utility hopes burying lines in rural areas will add to those reductions. . . . Some of the first areas to have lines buried will be along the lakeshore in West Michigan. But don’t look for lines in the cities or suburbs to be buried."

The Michigan Public Service Commission has scheduled town-hall meetings to hear from people who were without power for days after February’s ice storms and talk about how the panel is working to improve the grid’s resiliency. Two in-person meetings will be held in Jackson and Dearborn on March 20. A virtual meeting will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on March 21. Comments can be emailed to mpscedockets@michigan.gov or by mail to the PSC at Box 30221, Lansing MI 48909.

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