By Karl Grossman
The good news: “We should look at undergrounding [electric lines] as part of storm hardening,” Michael Hervey, the chief operating officer of the Long Island Power Authority, told me last week.
The problematic news: Mr. Hervey is leaving LIPA at the end of the month.
Will LIPA in the wake of superstorm Sandy and it causing the electricity for most Long Islanders to go out — for many days — actually move to underground its electric lines for “storm hardening?”
For years LIPA has emphasized that undergrounding is very expensive. But no one is saying the utility embark on undergrounding all its lines immediately — only to start and do undergrounding especially where it is most needed.
“LIPA should do undergrounding piece-by-piece—especially in areas in which, historically, overhead lines haven’t made it in storms,” says Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk.
As former East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny has noted, because the lines between Amagansett and Montauk were buried underground in 1991, the electricity in most of Montauk was not disrupted by Sandy, although that eight-mile Napeague stretch was severely battered. He had asked LIPA’s predecessor, the Long Island Lighting Company, to do the undergrounding after Hurricane Bob and also the “Perfect Storm” that year. LILCO agreed. Mr. Penny comments: “They say undergrounding is expensive. But in the long run, you save a lot of money in tree-trimming, repairs after a storm and economic disruption — the power doesn’t go out.”
An initial announcement by Edward Romaine as he transitioned last month from being a county legislator to Brookhaven Town supervisor was that he would insist that electric lines go underground in any new developments built in Long Island’s largest town.
LIPA, on its website (www.lipower.org), has a study on undergrounding done for it in 2005. Titled “A Review of Electric Utility Undergrounding Policies and Practices,” it notes that “approximately 68% of the distribution lines owned by LIPA are overhead” and “over 90% of the annual number of customer interruptions…occur” because of them.
Still, the report, by Navigant Consulting, Inc. of Westbury, stresses the expense of undergrounding. It cites an earlier study done for LIPA, in 1998, which “found that undergrounding the Long Island transmission and distribution system would be $14.7 billion and could potentially raise rates by 100%. Current cost estimates of undergrounding the…system are even higher due in part to increased material costs and changes in design standards.”
That’s a great amount of money even in light of what was reported last week to be the LIPA cost to repair its system after Hurricane Sandy — nearly $1 billion.
Importantly, it should be immediately noted, that Hurricane Sandy won’t be the end of hurricanes hitting here and, most likely, superstorms considering the link between global warming and violent, extreme weather. And, as bad as Sandy was, notably in its astronomically-intensified storm surge, the Hurricane of 1938 had far worse winds.
But, in the Navigant report, are models for how utilities elsewhere have approached undergrounding — piece-by-piece, not in one fell swoop.
It tells of how the North Carolina Public Utilities Commission “has recommended a selective approach instructing utilities to…identify the overhead facilities in each region it serves that repeatedly experience reliability problems based on measures such as number of outages” and draw up plans “for converting…to underground in an orderly and efficient manner.” And how Edmond Electric in Oklahoma “is taking a one-section-at-a-time approach.” And Dominion Virginia Power “has also adopted a selective approach.”
“Like these utilities,” it continues, “LIPA is concerned about the adverse rate impact a wholesale undergrounding program on Long Island would present, while at the same time recognizing that there may be the potential to improve system performance and aesthetics while mitigating rate impacts. LIPA is investigating alternatives to wholesale undergrounding. One such approach that LIPA is examining is a ‘targeted’ undergrounding program.”
After Sandy, it’s time for action. The various governmental panels doing post-Sandy investigations of LIPA should demand LIPA make a firm start on doing expanded “targeted” undergrounding.