Burying Power Cables

After the recent visit by Irma, I idly wondered why the electric utilities don’t simply bury the power cables. After all, the cables in my development are buried so it’s certainly possible. As with most such questions, the answer is much more complicated than you might think. The power companies are, of course, familiar with the idea and even have a name for it: undergrounding. Some states do have part of their power transmission grid underground and in the US about 25% of new transmission lines are undergrounded. Some countries like the Netherlands and Germany have made significant commitments to undergrounding. It is, however, a hard problem.

Part of the problem is cost. It takes roughly one million US dollars per mile to bury the cables although population density can triple the cost. Some studies show that undergrounding would double the rate utility users pay. There’s also the problem of effectiveness. While burying the cables certainly protects them from wind and falling trees, they are more susceptible to water damage.

I didn’t know any of this until I read this excellent article in Fortune about undergrounding and why it isn’t the obvious solution that it might appear to be at first thought. Those of you living in more northern climes may think that none of this concerns you but it does of course. Instead of hurricanes, you have to worry about ice and snow bringing down the lines and, of course, you occasionally get strong winds too.

None of this has anything to do with software or Emacs or any of the other things we usually discuss at Irreal but it is an engineering problem and does illustrate the tradeoffs involved in solving that problem. The article is definitely worth a read.

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