Burying power lines could prevent some future outages, but the astronomical cost might be too much to bear
When an ice storm hits, politicians lose power at their house just like everyone else and some of Oklahoma's representatives want to know what can be done to keep the lights on.
Several members of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives are calling for regulated electric utilities and the agency that oversees them to work with lawmakers to improve a service that routinely is interrupted by severe weather.
The representatives, all Democrats from the Oklahoma City area, are asking especially for Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. to up its game, both in how it responds to such events and what it could do to prevent similar weather-caused outages in the future.
On Nov. 9, state Reps. Cyndi Munson, Mickey Dollens, and Collin Walke indicated they spoke to some of their frustrated constituents who were among the hundreds of thousands of OG&E customers without power in the aftermath of this latest storm.
"The outage has created a crisis — adding to the current pandemic we are living through — emotionally, psychologically, and financially," Munson said. "I have been displaced from my home and know the pain of throwing out a fridge full of food, and after two weeks, many of my constituents and I still do not know when this will end.”
Together, Dollens, Munson and Walke called on the utility to improve its ability to communicate with its customers during future outages, to work with nonprofits and other supportive organizations to help customers during long-lasting outages and to begin taking a closer look at hardening its power system to prevent future, similar events.
Undergrounding parts of Oklahoma Gas and Electric’s electric distribution system without laying an unfair cost burden on customers needs to be considered, they added.
"We appreciate the hard work of OG&E and their staff and contractors, and we appreciate that OG&E is contending with a wide array of problems in each neighborhood, including having to navigate many issues at each home individually,” Walke stated. “At some point, however, a line of communication must be opened up and answers and solutions must be provided. Two weeks without power is not simply a matter of convenience in our city, it is a literal necessity. We want to know how we can help now and into the future. This crisis was not unexpected, nor was it a one-time incident.”
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Walke and his colleagues are right. But their call for action on undergrounding has been issued and responded to before.
Ice storms in 2007 left tens of thousands of utility and cooperative customers without power for weeks and prompted an unprecedented effort to evaluate what preventative steps might be taken, what the work might cost and whether customers would be willing to share in that expense. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission's Public Utility Division (PUD) issued a report in 2008 examining potential remedies, their estimated costs and how willing consumers would be to pay for the upgrades.
Is undergrounding portions of the state’s electrical distribution system an option? Sure.
Would it be expensive? Yes — estimates put that cost at nearly $58 billion in 2008.
Would customers be willing to pay what it would take to get it done? Based on survey results taken in 2008, probably not.
PUD’s “Inquiry into Undergrounding Electric Facilities in the State of Oklahoma” report evaluated whether or not recent weather events and their effects on the state’s electrical transmission and distribution systems might justify costs to broadly move the system underground in an attempt to better protect those systems.
The December 2007 storm was the second large ice storm in Oklahoma that year, and it was costly.
Of 29 storm-related fatalities, 13 were attributable to interrupted electrical power service — nine because of house fires, two because of carbon monoxide poisoning and two because of hypothermia.
The remaining 16 died in motor vehicle accidents that happened on icy roads.
There were an estimated $54 million in insured losses, according to the Oklahoma State Insurance Commissioner, and potentially as much as $780 million in uninsured losses, according to a survey paid for by OG&E and PSO at the time.
In 2008, regulated utilities sought the recovery of $108 million in storm losses from customers.
But the costs to underground electrical systems are also high.
Generally, studies that previously had been done by the Edison Electric Institute and various states including Florida, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia showed the work would take decades to complete and that costs to bury systems were being measured in tens of billions of dollars.
In Oklahoma in 2008, there were about 43,000 miles distribution lines. The estimated cost to underground existing distribution lines are between $435,000 and $2.5 million per mile, depending on conditions, meaning it could carry a statewide cost of $30.5 billion.
That estimate did not include costs for burying transmission lines, which require special treatment due to heat-dissipation issues, and would add about $27 billion more if Oklahoma buried the 7,500 miles of transmission line within its borders.
In short, the estimated cost then to bury Oklahoma’s entire electrical system was nearly $58 billion — about eight times more than the Oklahoma state government’s entire budget for that current fiscal year.
Pros and cons
Overhead electrical transmission and distribution systems are vulnerable to damages caused by from storms, tree limbs, animals and automobile accidents. Ice storms in particular are hazardous, given that ice that forms on an overhead line during a freezing rain event weighs 57 pounds per cubic foot.
When freezing rain falls and the wind blows, ice on a power line forms into the shape of a “wing” that gives “lift” to the electric line, causing it to start moving.
In a more extreme case of ice and wind, those electric lines become “galloping lines” that create enough stress on supportive poles to cause them to snap.
The Virginia State Corporation Commission concluded in a study that underground electric circuits experienced only 20 to 25% the rate of outages compared to overhead systems.
North Carolina’s Utilities Commission found its undergrounded systems only experienced about half the number of outages as overhead systems.
Detroit Edison and Consumers Energy reported to the Michigan Public Service Commission that the frequency of outages of their undergrounded systems were only 17% and 30% respectively, to that of the overhead systems they operated.
Undergrounded systems also cut down on utilities’ costs to keep trees away from lines, reports from various states showed. Investor-owned and regulated electric cooperatives in Oklahoma spent an estimated $63 million in 2007 alone on vegetation management.
But undergrounded electrical systems aren’t foolproof.
Lightning strikes can disable any electrical distribution system, undergrounded or not.
And unlike overhead systems, they are vulnerable to damages caused by accidental dig-ins, similar to ones that occasionally impact natural gas and oil lines or fiberoptic cable systems.
Underground systems also typically have shorter lifespans than overhead ones and were more difficult and dangerous to diagnose and repair when they fail.
Plus, when a utility converts an overhead electric system that is still being paid for to one that is undergrounded, that leaves behind a stranded asset cost that someone, usually ratepayers, has to retire.
The situation is akin to “tearing down a house that still has an existing mortgage,” the Michigan Public Service Commission’s study observed.
When considering initial installation costs that could be pushed higher by above- and below-grade obstructions including trees, swimming pools, soil stability and rock content issues and the presence of other utilities, Oklahoma’s study concluded there probably wouldn’t be much difference between overhead and undergrounded systems in operational and maintenance costs.
Some work has been done
Distribution lines for nearly all new construction since the mid-1980s both in Oklahoma and across the nation has been undergrounded by developers.
And a huge blackout in the Northeast in 2003 that required utilities across the nation to more aggressively manage tree intrusions on overhead lines also prompted some undergrounding work in Oklahoma.
Initially, PSO obtained approval from the Corporation Commission in 2003 to add a $11.4 million annual rider to its customers’ bills to pay for tightening its tree trimming cycle to ensure vegetation threatening each overhead line was trimmed once every four years.
But in 2005, after PSO experienced significant blowback from customers over its tree trimming program, it asked for and was granted an increase of that annual rider to about $23.7 million so that it could begin to underground parts of its distribution system in Tulsa that were difficult to access.
Between 2005 and 2011, PSO spent about $57 million to complete 38 conversion projects involving more than 100 miles of distribution lines that served about 9,000 of its customers.
Once the Great Recession arrived, PSO shifted its focus from undergrounding difficult to access systems to undergrounding others that needed to be upgraded anyway because of voltage or capacity issues.
The rider was rolled into its base rates in 2017, but the utility continues to evaluate systems with operational problems to consider undergrounding options, officials said.
The city of Edmond, meanwhile, buried a significant portion of its distribution system between 2004 and 2008. The city’s electric utility, a nonprofit functioning as part of the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, started by undergrounding its distribution system serving 500 customers in its Henderson Hills neighborhood to replace an overhead system in danger of totally collapsing because of rotting poles. Eventually, by targeting various areas of its distribution system needing repaired, Edmond undergrounded about 500 of its 800 miles of distribution line.
Survey says the interest might not be there
OG&E and PSO paid Evolve Research Strategies to obtain online and phone survey results that were included in PUD’s report. The online survey was participated in by 1,340 respondents, while the phone survey was conducted with 401 persons paying household electric bills in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas.
Survey results generally showed that people understood that undergrounding electrical systems could help reduced future outages and understood that their bills would climb to help pay for the work.
However, only just over 50% of the phone survey participants stated they were willing to pay more than $1 a month to support undergrounding efforts, while only half of those indicated they would be willing to pay more than $2.50 monthly.
Bills would have to be adjusted significantly higher than that to support any type of meaningful program that could have a broad impact, officials said.
“No public utility commission has found a funding mechanism that will permit undergrounding of electric facilities to be completed on any sort of universal or fast track basis,” PUD’s report concluded. “However, commissions have attacked this problem by addressing very specific parts of the electric grid, e.g., poorly performing circuits, lines along road rights of way undergoing construction, all secondary line extensions, etc. Targeted undergrounding along with other hardening remedies could have a significant impact on the hardships that result from a major ice storm and the electric outages that typically follow.”
Business Writer Jack Money covers Oklahoma’s energy and agricultural beats for the newspaper and Oklahoman.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription at oklahoman.com/subscribe today.