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Posted on 03 April 2010

 “Long Island experienced a severe weather event with near hurricane force winds greater than 72 miles per hour on March 13,” said the voice on the Long Island Power Authority’s “electric service problem reporting line” late last week. That “severe weather event” caused, said the voice, 263,000 of LIPA’s customers — that’s a quarter of the 1.1 million LIPA customers — to lose electricity. “All customers should be restored by tonight.”

If a nasty nor’easter could result in a quarter of LIPA’s customers losing electricity because of trees and branches falling on LIPA lines, what would the impact be of a hurricane?

In a conversation with a lineman last week, I asked: “If 75 mile-per-hour wind results in a quarter of LIPA customers losing their electric service, what would happen if the winds were 100 miles-per-hour?” He responded that LIPA “would be screwed.” More than LIPA would suffer that fate, of course. Hurt badly would be the people of Long Island — for which a big hurricane is due.

If this nor’easter could cause a quarter of LIPA customers to lose service, it can be expected that a hurricane — especially one of the mega-hurricanes that have been striking elsewhere in the U.S. with 100-plus miles-per-hour winds — would lead to most LIPA customers losing electricity for a very long time.

It’s time underground electric lines are reconsidered.

A 2005 study done for LIPA maintained that it would cost $33 billion for LIPA to underground its lines. That followed a 1998 report LIPA also commissioned which estimated the cost at $14.7 billion.

LIPA insists undergrounding is unaffordable. That contention was seconded in an editorial last week in Newsday stating: “Burying the lines isn’t affordable, so we need to deal with the trees,” especially “problem ones.”

LIPA has had an ambitious tree-trimming program as a result of what happened when Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985. That was 25 years ago so many Long Islanders might not know that although electricity provided by LIPA’s predecessor, the Long Island Lighting Company, was out for more than a week, homes and businesses were still able to use their phones — because New York Telephone had a program of undergrounding its lines.

As Bruce Reisman, its PR representative, explained then: “New York Telephone began placing cable underground whenever feasible in the early 1970s in connection with a nationwide trend to avoid visual pollution and increased corporate concerns for cost reduction… Cost studies clearly indicated to us that it would simply be less costly for us over the long term to place much of our telephone cables underground. It is generally less expensive to maintain a telephone plant when it is underground. This is because underground facilities are less likely to be damaged by falling trees or branches, high winds, ice storms, etc… The majority of our telephone cables on Long Island, 69 percent, is now underground. This appears to have benefited us during Hurricane Gloria. Despite the hurricane, we were able to maintain telephone service for about 96 percent of our more than one million Long Island customers.”

LIPA on its website says that “more than 2,200 lineman and 1,000 support personnel” were needed to restore service after the nor’easter. The cost will be many millions of dollars.

If a big hurricane strikes and Long Island and its commerce are brought to a virtual standstill for an extended period because of no electricity, the cost to Long Island would be far, far more.

The best forum in which a debate over underground versus overhead electric lines on Long Island could be conducted would be an elected LIPA board. But there is no such democratic entity running LIPA (as the law setting up LIPA required). LIPA has taken to functioning like a utility counterpart of the MTA.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor, long an advocate of underground electric lines and an elected LIPA board, comments: “This is an issue that the public seems more interested in than the LIPA [appointed] board.” Mr. Thiele, meanwhile, endeavors to get electric lines underground — most recently in a major project in Montauk for which Congressman Tim Bishop, he noted, is working to get federal funding assistance.

“It’s not financially feasible to do it all at once,” says Mr. Thiele of undergrounding the entire LIPA system. “But we must try to seek every opportunity to do it.”

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