Hey, Consumers Energy! I’m so over the frequent outages. Why don’t you just bury the lines already?

When extreme weather hits and power goes out, one question inevitably comes up: “Why don’t you bury the powerlines?”

Historically, the short answer has been “The cost is too high.” And while cost is still a factor, we know with the increased frequency of severe weather over the last few years it is worth considering.

It’s important to know we do have some underground lines. Many of these underground locations are in subdivisions and areas with high population density. Many individual customers have also paid to have underground lines installed for aesthetic purposes.

With that said, we know there is more opportunity. We recently identified two pilot projects and are communicating with customers about the possibility of undergrounding their electric lines – which involves moving overhead electric lines underground, at least 24 inches deep.

So, let’s dive into the great debate on overhead vs. underground lines.

Let’s start with the benefits:

Reduced outages – Buried lines are largely protected from weather-related impacts like lightning, high winds, tornadoes, heavy snow, ice and falling tree limbs. In addition, having more buried lines can help with faster restoration time for those who do have overhead lines. With fewer overhead lines to repair after severe weather, crews can respond faster to other outage areas.

Safety – The safety of our customers and co-workers is our number one priority. Buried lines can reduce or eliminate the risk of downed wire contact, fire hazards, car-pole accidents, and entanglement hazards from drones and or objects like ladders or construction booms. It would also lessen vandalism, theft, illegal connections, and sabotage – which all come with a safety threat, as well.

Lower Annual Maintenance – Tree trimming expenses are reduced and lines need less maintenance and fewer repairs. .

Although there are many benefits to underground lines, there also some downsides:

Cost – Although there is a lower maintenance cost, as mentioned above – the cost to bury lines and fix issues when they do occur can be greater than the maintenance.

Fixing Problems – Underground powerlines will certainly help protect service during severe storms accompanied by strong winds, but it doesn’t ensure an outage free future. The underground lines ultimately connect to areas above ground that could cause an outage. In addition, there is a natural lifespan for the underground lines and equipment. If there is an issue it can be much harder to find the problem and take longer to complete the repair. Currently when our crews respond to an outage, they can pretty quickly identify the problem once they can visually inspect lines and equipment. That’s not the case with underground outages – crews will literally need to move heaven and earth (okay, mostly just earth) to find the issue. Once identified, fixing underground issues can cost more and be disruptive due to the major construction necessary to access the lines.

While it won’t ever be feasible to put all the wires underground, we are looking at where it makes sense to do so, by evaluating:

  • Outage history: those of frequent or long duration and causes.
  • Constructability: assessments on obstructions, materials, and cost.
  • Tree density: environmental impact and tree trimming maintenance.
  • Quantity of customers served.
  • Electrical load required and anticipated growth of the area.
  • Other planned area projects we could do in parallel to limit disruption.

Providing reliable electric service to our Michigan neighbors is the very foundation of our business. To achieve this, we are committed to exploring every option – including burying electric lines where it makes sense.

Stay tuned – we’ll keep you updated as plans for undergrounding progress.