Why Don't We Bury Power Lines in the U.S.?

Power lines are often damaged by trees during powerful storms like hurricanes. KMH Photo Video/Shutterstock

More than once during a storm — as I've fretted over the contents of my freezer or my lack of access to Netflix — I've found myself asking: Why doesn't the U.S. bury its power lines?

It turns out I'm not alone in wondering.

Burying power lines is expensive

The simple answer is that burying power lines is considerably more expensive than you might think. As reported by CNN, North Carolina's Utility Commission looked into burying power lines after more than 2 million homes were left without electricity in the storms of 2002. Th commission found that the project would cost $41 billion, take 25 years to complete, and would require that customers' electricity rates nearly double to pay for it — leading the commission to conclude that it would be "prohibitively expensive."

Access and longevity are a concern

The upfront cost of "undergrounding" power lines isn't the only downside. According to this Wikipedia entry on the practice, other disadvantages include a shorter shelf life for cables, the danger of the cables being accidentally damaged by road construction or other digging, vulnerability to floods and the fact that if damage does occur, repairs can take considerably longer than what's needed for overhead cables.

That said, there are advantages. Some communities advocate burying cables for aesthetic reasons. My hometown of Durham, North Carolina, has chopped down or severely pruned its beautiful street trees because they interfere with power lines. (Apparently, when Durham's many willow oaks were planted, city planners assumed power lines would eventually be buried.)

Undergrounding: Long-term investment and economic stimulus

Commentator David Frum has made a strong case for burying power lines, arguing that utilities' cost estimates are over-inflated (a U.K. study suggested a premium of five times the cost of overhead lines, not 10); that resilience to storms is increasingly important in a changing climate; and that because U.S. cities are becoming more dense, we can expect the cost per mile to come down. Frum also argued that undergrounding is the kind of job-creating initiative that governments should undertake during an economic downturn, taking advantage of low interest rates to upgrade our infrastructure, shore up our communities against the threat of climate change and put many Americans back to work. (Indeed, burying power lines is one of the ways cities are preparing themselves for climate change.)

It seems unlikely that large-scale undergrounding will take off anytime soon, at least not in existing communities. But burying power lines in new communities is a lot more commonplace, and considerably cheaper than replacing existing infrastructure. It may be that we'll gradually see a shift to underground lines over the decades, but for now, I think we should all plan to do a better job of preparing for the next power outage.