With the memory of a widespread storm-related blackout fresh in their minds, local government officials discussed whether they should promote the burial of electric lines.
City Councilman Mitch Harper's reaction to this week's storms that felled utility poles, trees and left thousands sweltering in the dark for days?
Well, yes. But much the same exercise played itself out in the wake of the ice storm that blanketed the area and left thousands shivering in December 2008.
An exercise in futility as it turned out, because the push for increased use of underground power lines – pushed at the city and county level following the ice storm by Fort Wayne resident Al Kuelling – came to nothing then, and is likely to suffer a similar fate despite its apparent logic.
“The case just wasn't made that it was the right thing to do,” County Commissioner Nelson Peters said, recalling Kuelling's attempt to persuade the three-member board to adopt a countywide ordinance that would have not only required the burial of new lines but also promoted the below-ground relocation of existing above-ground lines.
By the time Kuelling appeared before City Council in 2010, he made it clear he was advocating only the burial of new lines or lines that must be moved anyway during road or construction projects – something Indiana & Michigan Power Vice President of External Relations Marc Lewis said usually happens now anyway.
Although there are obvious benefits to protecting poles and lines from heavy ice, strong winds and falling trees, there are equally compelling but far less noticeable drawbacks, not the least of which being that it can cost 10 times as much to bury existing lines as it does to string them on poles, according to Lewis.
The cost differential is much less in areas where lines can be buried before construction begins, but even then the practice can be problematic. Underground lines can be less reliable, more difficult and costly to fix and, in flood conditions, can cause unique hazards for repair crews. And efforts to bury lines in well-established neighborhoods must contend with trees above ground, extensive roots below and, in some cases, the lack of legal easements.
Even so, Harper's resurrection of the issue is welcome because, even if Kuelling's timing wasn't right two years ago, a second massive wave of blackout-induced hardship and expense in less than four years may have changed the equation.
Harper suggests the issue receive a thorough cost-benefit analysis, possibly in cooperation with other cities to minimize the cost to Fort Wayne. Peters agrees a study “isn't a bad idea” if the cost is reasonable.
Lewis, however, said the issue has already been thoroughly studied and elsewhere and failed to live up to expectations. “We are familiar with the issue,” he said.
In other words, I&M has already determined that it is not cost-effective to bury existing lines on a massive scale. Should such storms become even more common and more costly, that could always change. But unless government wants to impose massive costs on I&M in exchange for benefits that are not clear – something Peters is loathe to do – the change is not here yet.
And if governments do mandate such a major expense, Lewis said, state regulators could require those governments to help bear the cost.
But whether in taxes or higher utility rates, the public would ultimately foot most of the bill.
The thousands of people and businesses who endured much of the last week without power, however, may indeed be willing to bear that expense – especially if it would minimize the chance for future expense and suffering down the line.
If there are good studies available on this issue, it should not be necessary to pay for one. Council members should get them, study them and, if necessary, add to them as quickly and efficiently as possible. Such a course may prove that this idea really does sound better than it is, but at least the community's response would be based on something as close to factual as possible.