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Why not bury our power lines?Even after Sandy, stakeholders say it's expensive, not perfect and causes other issues

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Scott Surgeoner didn't mince words when he described the historical severity of Hurricane Sandy-related outages last year within Metropolitan Edison Co.'s coverage area.

"Worst, absolute worst. Not even close," said Surgeoner, spokesman for the subsidiary of Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. that serves parts of Central and Eastern Pennsylvania, including the midstate.

The utility was far from alone in the state, where 1.8 million electricity customers lost power at some point as damaging winds blew in from the Atlantic Ocean — including more than half a million using the Pennsylvania distribution subsidiary of Allentown-based PPL Corp.

So wouldn't it have been better and more cost effective, considering massive repair bills, to have had those lines protected underground?

Easier said than done, and it is far from a full cure, stakeholders said, although that topic does come up when events such as Sandy happen.

That's not to say that anything quite like this storm had ever happened before.

To put Met-Ed's outages into perspective, for example, Sandy caused more outages than 2011's Hurricane Irene and the large Halloween snowstorm combined, Surgeoner said.

Nearly 300,000 of Met-Ed's customers had outages throughout the event, or about 55 percent of the base, he said.

The volume was even larger for PPL Corp. subsidiary PPL Electric Utilities.

More than 520,000 of its 1.4 million customers in Pennsylvania lost power at some point during the storm, spokesman Joe Nixon said.

Sandy caused the single largest outage for PPL Electric Utilities in its history, he said.

Met-Ed and PPL were among several utilities called upon this month to participate in a special forum with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in addition to its regular winter and summer reliability forums.

The Jan. 10 event was set to focus on lessons learned from Sandy and how well general preparations or new processes put in place following severe weather in 2011 had worked.

They included communications plans using electronic means — the age of mobile devices mean people are not cut off right away when the power goes out — and preplanning and prestaging of equipment and crews ahead of the event, according to the commission.

The superstorm hit Pennsylvania Oct. 29 and, at its worst, 1.2 million customers did not have power at the same time.

But 90 percent of the total 1.8 million customers affected throughout the event had it back by Nov. 3, the commission said.

One of the big-picture questions the commission is trying to determine is why Sandy was so much larger in its impact than Hurricane Irene in 2011 and what lessons can be learned from those reasons, said Jennifer Kocher, PUC spokeswoman.

Going underground to try to solve such problems in the future would be costly — about $1 million per mile of line — and it's not a perfect solution even if cost were not a factor, she said.

Higher voltage lines cannot go underground, so there is still the potential for wind-related outages that way, and repairing underground lines can be much more difficult, Kocher said.

Some newer developments have taken to burying lines, she said.

For burying lines, the cost would be seven to 10 times more expensive than installation of overhead infrastructure, Met-Ed's Surgeoner said. It is a very expensive proposition, and the cost would have to be passed on to the customer, he said.

Underground infrastructure also would not necessarily translate into better results, Surgeoner said. If there is a problem above ground, crews can see what is broken and fix it quickly, he said.

But if a problem is underground, crews have to search to figure out exactly where the issue is and dig up the problem area to do their work, Surgeoner said.

Still, underground power lines are a policy question that is going to have to be discussed by regulators, legislators and other key stakeholders, he said.

Every storm presents opportunities to learn and do things better if they can be better, and PPL is always open to that, Nixon said.

Using large central staging areas with temporary housing for utilities crews during Sandy was one initiative that came in the wake of the 2011 storms, for example, Nixon said.

But he also said that an underground solution would have its own problems, from costs to the fact that outages could be longer in duration because it is more difficult to identify and fix problems, Nixon said.

"It's not a simple as saying, 'Bury everything,'" he said.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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