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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Underground: The Reprint

(This was originally published in September 2011, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. It is reprinted exactly as it appeared 13 months ago.)    

There was a palpable shift in attitude toward LIPA on Wednesday, August 31. Frustration and outright hostility spilled over as the flow of useful information about outages and repairs slowed and sometimes stopped. A lot of good will has been lost by LIPA. Perhaps they can start to earn some of it back.

Is there a way that widespread outages can be significantly reduced, perhaps eventually to the point where they are a quaint memory of the past? What would that be worth to Long Islanders who lost business, merchandise, foodstuffs and patience this past week?

There would be up front costs. Most people are willing to pay a little more if they can be assured that it’s used effectively and efficiently for something tangible that will protect them or improve their lives.         

For decades, the possibility of Long Island’s power transmission and distribution wires underground has come up again and again, only to be rejected by LILCO (the private electric company we used to have) and then LIPA (the public authority that bought out LILCO’s operations in 1998). After the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, Long Island’s brand new Regional Planning Board urged LILCO to begin systematically burying wires, section by section. Earlier that year, the Federal Housing Administration actually made underground utility lines a requirement for new subdivisions built with federally insured mortgages. This idea moved toward the front burners after huge outages from ice storms in 1978 and Hurricane Gloria in 1985. In 2010, a Newsday editorial suggested that the idea wasn’t feasible, proving that it deserves another look.

Our power providers have dismissed undergrounding the transmission system as too expensive, and its benefits exaggerated. It’s true that below ground wires are not a perfect panacea. The number of outages goes way down, but when something does go wrong it takes longer to fix. However, with more intense storms and less intense infrastructure maintenance, it is worthy of a public conversation.

Every year, LIPA receives requests from civic groups or villages to consider moving local transmission and distribution (“T & D”) wires underground, both for aesthetic and safety reasons. LIPA keeps moving the goal line on us. In 2005, LIPA issued a report that estimated it would cost $33.3 billion to move the system totally underground, including interest and inflation. Only seven years before that, a similar report put the cost at only $14.7 billion. Even after adjusting for inflation between 1998 and 2005, one of those reports (paid for with customer dollars) was off by precisely 100 percent. Earlier reports by LILCO  regularly put the cost of conversion at only about $8.7 billion adjusted to 2005 money.

Some favored communities are successful in convincing LIPA to shift overhead wires underground. What is the standard? How many standards are there?

The immediate costs of burying lines is higher than stringing wires overhead. We likely can never do it all at once, and it may not be feasible in every neighborhood. But as I write this, I’ll bet there are at least 98,000 households and businesses that have been without power for five days and five nights and want us to get an objective handle on what it would entail.

Those utility poles rot and get damaged from weather and must be replaced over time. Undergrounding can be done a little at a time as part of the pole maintenance program, reducing some of the costs. Across the country, there are numerous existing models for dedicating funds and fees to finance conversion costs. We have one old model right here. Readers living in unincorporated communities pay taxes to town-created lighting districts. Until they were consolidated and restructured in the 1960s, there were 57 lighting districts across the county. Lighting districts were the mechanisms that first lit our downtowns and later our local neighborhoods.

Putting power lines underground will cost extra money. Rebuilding the same vulnerable system after each severe weather incident costs even more. LIPA was supposed to be more than LILCO ever was, concerned with our quality of life beyond the mere bottom line. Show us.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net