Why don't we bury our power lines in the NW?

Photo by Paula Wissel

By Paula Wissel

Did you find yourself in the dark, shivering under blankets, eating cold rations during the recent snow and ice storms?  Did it have you wondering why we are so dependent on overhead power poles to keep the lights on? Could there be a better way? 


Blame the trees

Derrick Lonneker climbs up a downed power pole, as he works to repair a transmission line damaged by a falling tree near a substation, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, in Olympia, WA. Photo by The Associated PressNearly half a million Puget Sound Energy customers lost power during the January storms. Roger Thompson, spokesman for Puget Sound Energy, says it was the worst for the utility in modern times.

He sums up the reason for the power outages in one word. Trees.

“You don’t have this problem in Arizona if a cactus falls over. You know, it can blow up to 100 miles an hour and nobody loses power there. Here, everybody loses power,” he said.

Sitting next to Thompson in the PSE offices in Bellevue, Gretchen Aliabadi nods in agreement. 

“When Mother Nature comes through with these storms, she takes our system down faster than we can put it up,” Aliabadi said.


So, why don’t we bury them?

Roger Thompson says he gets the question a lot.  His answer is always the same: Money.

“If it was all about ultimate paramount reliability and cost be damned, we could probably underground all 24 thousand miles.” Thompson said.

Half of Puget Sound Energy’s lines, 12,000 miles, are already underground. It isn’t cheap to do.

The electric utility industry in the United States puts out the figure of a million dollars a mile to place lines underground, four to six times what stringing wires on poles requires.

According to the Edison Electric Institute, 70 percent of wires in the U.S. are still on overhead poles.

University of Washington Professor of Electrical Engineering Daniel Kirschen says, if you look at the cost/benefit analysis, “undergrounding” the whole system just doesn’t pencil out.

“I think we have to accept the fact that being without power is inconvenient for the people who are without power, but as a society it would be too expensive,” he said.

Or would it?


An alternative view

If the power lines went underground, would we lose the art form of Shoefiti?

The assumption is that customers of Puget Sound Energy or other utilities are not willing to pay, say, $20 extra a month indefinitely to have more reliable power.

It isn’t how everyone sees it.

Take the Europeans, for example.

Yolanda Cieters lives with her two kids and husband in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. She grew up in Belgium. When her father visited a few years ago, he looked out from her deck, saw the power poles in the middle of the city and couldn’t believe it.

“He was astonished to realize that was the electricity grid,” she said.

Belgium had buried its power lines a long time ago. For Yolanda’s father, the power poles in Seattle brought back memories of his childhood in Europe in the 1960’s, when utility poles were still above ground there.

“He even took pictures to show his friends back home that this still exists here,” she said.

Here he was in high-tech Seattle in a neighborhood with expensive homes and it was as if everyone was driving around in old 1959 Chevys.

He isn’t alone. A lot of European visitors have similar reactions. 


Are you willing to pay?

Photo by Paula WisselUniversity of Washington professor Kirschen, who also happens to be from Belgium, theorizes that Europeans value the aesthetics of their infrastructure and may be “more willing to pay for it.” He says when you’re doing a cost/benefit analysis, it’s really hard to factor in the aesthetic value because it is so subjective.

There has been a move in cities from Seattle to Tacoma to put wires underground as part of beautification projects. Housing developers often put utilities underground to make new subdivisions more attractive. And utilities seem to be slowly moving in the direction of “undergrounding” more lines.

Still, the overhead wooden poles with cross bars, a design that dates back more than 100 years, persist as an integral part of the power grid.

There are groups in the U.S., including Scenic America pushing to get rid of the poles, which they consider visual pollution.

A new non profit, Power Underground is trying to raise money so it can, according to its website:

“Advise the public of the alternative of underground power lines and the obvious dangers, disadvantages and costs of above ground power lines.”

It also argues that a nationwide “undergrounding” effort could be part of a federal job stimulus plan.


We don’t see them

We live in the picturesque Pacific Northwest, with drop-dead views of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound.  But, maybe the power poles have been part of the scenery for so long we don’t even notice them anymore.

Think about it. When was the last time you really looked closely at those overhead poles on your street or alley? You might be surprised how many there are.


The mass of poles in Seattle back in 1912.  Photo from Seattle Engineering DepartmentThe beginning of the clutter

Back in the early 1900’s, if you were walking around Seattle, you would’ve had a hard time ignoring the masses of wires going up as unregulated companies raced each other to put up poles and bring homes and businesses electricity. 

Look at old photos of downtown Seattle and you see this mass of poles with dozens of cross bars and wires going every which way.

“It was a hornet’s nest of wire where two different or sometimes three different utilities were all competing to serve the same building,” said Roger Thompson, Puget Sound Energy spokesman.

Eventually, things settled down, utilities were publicly regulated. The hornet’s nests of wire gave way to single strands in some cases. We got used to them.

Electric power: 'Looking Forward' (1930s), Produced for Puget Sound Power & Light Co.


On the line

One afternoon, a few days after the recent storm hit, I met up with a utility crew on a road in Federal Way. It was in a steep ravine littered with branches and downed wires.

I asked Rob Brackman, who was working as a flagger for Puget Sound Energy, why he thinks we continue to rely on these poles that seem so last century.

“It is a primitive design, but it works,” he said.

Works. Until the next storm.