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Debate Over Burying Power Lines In Scarsdale

Scarsdale is answering questions on the ongoing debate on if burying the power lines in the village is a possibility.

After Hurricane Sandy hit, folks throughout the village of Scarsdale have been questioning whether the village could and should bury power lines. Many folks were left without power for 14 days after Sandy and the question of underground lines has come up in public forums, opinion pieces and Board of Trustees meetings.

The following is information is provided by the Village Manager's office. The village addresses the ins and outs of burying power lines.

A common comment after a storm such as Hurricane Sandy and the resulting power outages is that the power lines in the Village should be buried. Another frequent comment is that the Village should raise the money to bury the power lines. What follows in Q & A format are answers to these and related frequently asked questions.

This material is not intended to be a definitive discussion of the subject but is provided with the goal of focusing on some of the issues and challenges that going forward with such a project would present.

Q: Why can’t the Village bury the power lines?
A. The Village does not own the power lines. Con Ed does.
Q: Why can’t the Village force Con Ed to bury the power line?
A. The Village does not have jurisdiction over Con Ed. Con Ed is subject to regulation by the New York State Public Service Commission (“PSC”).
Q. Why can’t the PSC force Con Ed to bury the power lines?
A. Theoretically such an order could be issued. However, such an order, if ever issued, would only be issued after appropriate hearings before the PSC in which Con Ed and other stakeholders (for example, customers, representatives of neighboring towns and the County) would appear and in which many factors, not the least of which would be the cost of such a project, would be considered. It is reasonable to expect that such a proceeding would take a considerable amount of time and among other things, if Con Ed were required to bury some or all of the power lines they would seek to pass the cost of such a project on to rate payers in the form of increases in electric rates.
Q. How much would it cost to bury the power lines in the Village?
A. In the past, Con Ed has estimated that it would cost approximately $1 million per mile to bury the power lines in the Village. Scarsdale has 91.33 miles of roads. Power lines are buried in some parts of the Village so assuming for discussion purposes that approximately 84 miles of power lines would have to buried, the cost might be in the range of approximately $84 million.
Q. During this period of low interest rates why doesn’t the Village borrow the money to finance burying the power lines?
A. The power lines are not owned by the Village and so having the Village borrow the money to bury them would not make sense.
Q. So how could the cost of burying power lines be financed?
A. The logical means for financing such a project would be to have Con Ed fund it. As noted above, it would be expected that Con Ed would seek to recoup the cost of such a project through an increase of electric rates. So, ultimately the project would be funded by Con Ed customers.
Q. Can’t we just change electric utilities and replace Con Ed with another provider?
A. While there are other authorized service providers selling electricity to Scarsdale customers (their names can be found on the PSC web site and in the frequent mail solicitations we all receive), the lines over which the electricity flows are still owned by Con Ed. Therefore, even though individual customers can change vendors, we would still have to deal with Con Ed on the matter of burying power lines.
Q. Could the Village amend the Village Code to require that power lines be buried and implement a program that would say, bury a portion of the lines each time a Village road was re-paved?
A. The Village Code could be so amended, but doing so would not address the fundamental issue of how to require Con Ed to put up the funds and devote the resources to a power line burying project. In addition, imposing such a requirement on existing power lines may be impractical. It may be worthwhile to consider amending the Village Code to require the burying of power lines in new Village subdivisions (a practice that is often voluntarily followed) although there are not many areas of the Village remaining that would be impacted by such a change and the change would not address the larger issue posed by the existing system.
Q. Would burying the power lines be worth it?
A. Possibly although it would not insure that there would never be power outages. For example, buried power lines remain susceptible to outages in the grid to which they are connected. Even if buried lines do not suffer a disabling event, if the grid they are connected to goes dark, the fact that the lines are underground won’t matter, they’ll go dark also.
In addition, buried power lines are more expensive to repair than overhead lines since it is more difficult to pin point the cause of an outage in lines that are not visible. Further, once a repair site is located, the street under which the line is buried must be excavated and repaired – an expensive and disruptive undertaking.
Q. How long would it take to bury the power lines in Scarsdale?
A. We have not seen any estimates on timing, but it would clearly be a massive undertaking requiring digging up rights of way, working around existing subsurface utilities, cutting trees and tree roots and generally disrupting the parts of the Village in which the work was being done. Assuming it was done in a piecemeal fashion, it would be expected to take many years to get the job done.
Q. Is there something else that might be done to provide a short-term cure to the problem of downed power lines that is less expensive?
A. It is not clear that there is but one area of study in this regard are the rules that govern the planting of trees in or next to the Village right of way that runs across the front of property throughout the Village. Not planting trees in or immediately next to the right of way where power poles are for the most part located would help, but of course would not solve problems caused by very large trees planted further away. In addition, consideration might be given to how trees near power lines are trimmed. In any event, this is a matter that is being studied and some work on this topic might prove helpful to some degree.
Q. Should the idea of burying power lines be abandoned?
A. Not necessarily. It may be worth pursuing in the appropriate forum – with Con Ed and at the PSC. It also may be worth pursuing a plan that would bury power lines in some areas where it might be most beneficial, but not in every part of the Village. As noted in a report of the Edison Electric Institute referred to below,“ [t]he future of undergrounding will continue to hinge on the ability of customers and the utilities to work together to reach a compromise on meeting customer expectations and compensating utilities for the cost of placing electrical facilities underground.” Hall, Kenneth L., Out of Sight Out of Mind an Updated Study of Undergrounding Overhead Power Lines, Edison Electric Institute (December 2009)
Q. Where can I find out more information about burying power lines?
A. There is a lot of literature and news articles on the subject easily retrievable on the internet. One informative piece is a December 2009 study noted above which was prepared for the Edison Electric Institute, an electric utility trade organization.

The study is available at:
http://eei.org/ourissues/electricitydistribution/Documents/UndergroundReport.pdf

In addition, a Con Ed customer can arrange to have the power line that runs from the street to the customer’s home buried. While the failure of that short length of power line is rarely the sole cause of an outage in the event of a major storm, it is an exposed line that could be damaged in a storm. Some residents have had the line from the street to their home buried both for safety and aesthetic reasons. To accomplish that, a customer must hire a licensed electrician who will interface with Con Ed to get the job done. The customer must pay the cost of such a project and the cost can vary widely depending on the circumstance of each customer’s house including the distance of the house from the road, nature of the terrain between the street and the house and subsurface conditions. Con Ed advises that such a project can take four to six months to complete assuming everything goes smoothly. The biggest time factor is having the job work its way up the cue of pending jobs that Con Ed may have to do at any particular time.

Q. Where do we go from here?
A. Consideration should be given to contacting Con Ed for the purpose of engaging in a project that would develop a realistic long-range plan for burying some or all of power lines in the Village. Recognizing that such a project, if doable at all, would be complex, costly and require years to put into effect, now is an appropriate time to focus on this subject in a thoughtful and constructive manner.

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