Robert’s column

Robert Barron column: Underground power lines have their own issues

But any move to put the lines underground would not be easy, or cheap.

Last week’s windstorm saw approximately 30,000 homes in the Cowichan Valley lose their power, with some probably still in the dark as this column is published.

Many thousands more lost power across the rest of the Island and the Lower Mainland as winds gusted to more than 120 kilometres an hour in some areas.

In a region where power wires are situated on poles amidst massive trees, I’m surprised they are not taken down by falling trees and branches more often, but we’re lucky that major windstorms are fairly rare here.

But my heart goes out to all those people who were forced to spend a very traditional Christmas this year, whether they wanted to or not, with only candles for light and wood stoves and fireplaces, for those who are lucky enough to have them, supplying the heat.

That may have been fun for many, but I suspect that a lot of other people were very inconvenienced by the power loss as well as blocked roads due to the storm; not to mention those with health ailments that require their medications to be refrigerated, and quick access to hospitals.

It was heartening to learn that local governments did their best to help those in need during the crisis and established warming centres in a number of locations until all the power was restored to the Valley.

I’ve often heard it said after events like this storm that power lines should not be placed 20 to 30 feet in the air on poles where they are very exposed to the elements and trees.

It does make sense that placing power lines underground would protect them from windstorms and the related falling trees and branches, not to mention the fact that the removal of the lines and poles would do much to improve the view in communities and along the roadways.

But any move to put the lines underground would not be easy, or cheap.

Some of the quick research I’ve done on the issue revealed that while placing power lines on poles costs about $10 per foot, putting them underground would cost at least $40 a foot, with some sources claiming that is really just a fraction of the actual costs.

In fact, in heavily urbanized and already built up areas, some studies suggest that the cost of underground power transmission can be up to 14 times as expensive as overhead lines.

Then there’s the fact that while underground power lines are better protected against weather and wind, they are much more susceptible to the deterioration of the insulation around the wires by being in the ground.

And when a problem occurs, whether due to the deteriorating insulation or for any other reason, the cost of finding its location and dealing with it is more expensive than repairing a fault in an overhead line where the wires and conductors are visible, readily accessible and easier to repair.

As well, the duration of power outages in underground lines are typically much longer than the amount of time associated with fixing overhead lines.

So there’s no easy solutions to ensuring that the power stays on during these storms.

Until the technology catches up with what’s needed, and the costs can be kept reasonable, we will have to make the best out of what we currently have.

Maybe the best bet for now is to invest in a generator.



robert.barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com

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