Hurricanes usually beat power lines

Power utilities again weigh the costs, and the ensuing price hikes, of armoring power lines.

By Mark Williams, AP Business Writer November 12, 2008

From the Gulf Coast to Ohio, the only thing louder than the howling winds from hurricanes this year were the complaints about how long it took to get the lights back on.

According to the Associated Press , as an extraordinarily violent hurricane season comes to a close, utilities again weigh the costs, and the ensuing price hikes, of armoring power lines.

“If the mother nature paradigm has shifted and it’s going to cost us $80 million to $150 million every three years that’s a different financial model,” said Mike Madison, president and chief executive of Cleco Corp., based in Pineville, La. Madison spoke at the annual meeting of the Edison Electric Institute in Phoenix Tuesday, Nov. 11.

Gustav knocked out power to 90% of his 273,000 customers in September.
Hurricanes Gustav and Ike combined to knock out power to nearly 8 million homes and businesses over summer, some for as long as two weeks. Many who had power restored after Gustav roared through Louisiana, lost it again when Ike plowed into the Texas coast.

But political leaders don’t have to sell the cost of armoring the nation’s power grid, which would inevitably show up on utility bills.

Putting lines underground would cost about $1 million a mile – 10 times the cost of overhead lines, according to an Edison Electric study.

And faith in even those fortifications were doused by hurricanes Ivan and Katrina.
But in the past three years, after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike did unprecedented damage to the nation’s power infrastructure, there remains the question of whether that is a cost consumers must bear.

While utilities have hardened systems to better withstand winds and flying debris, building a hurricane-proof system is not feasible, experts say.

In the 13 years prior a 2006 study by the Edison Electric Institute , about half of all capital expenditures by U.S. investor-owned utilities for new transmission and distribution wires have been for underground wires. Still, about 70% of the nation’s distribution system has been built with overhead lines.

Research has shown that there are fewer outages in areas where there are underground lines, and underground lines can make sense in new residential areas or densely populated areas such as New York City.

But when outages do occur, they tend to last longer because finding and fixing the problem is more difficult.