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To Bury or Not To Bury, that is the question - William Shakespeare, paraphrased

Jan. 12, 2019 – Most of you have read about the November 2018 California “Camp Fire” that is now reported as the deadliest ad most destructive wildfire in California history. This wildfire covered an area of over 150,000 acres, destroyed over 18,000 structures and pretty much destroyed the town of Paradise, CA. One of the consequences of this wildfire is that PG&E Corp, which owns California’s largest power company Pacific Gas & Electric, could face over $30 billion in liability related to the fire and has considered filing for bankruptcy. Possibly facing murder charges from reckless operation of power equipment, there are questions whether PG&E power lines have sparked the deadly Camp Fire.

Closer to home, after months of public outcry, Long Island Power Authority (“LIPA”) and PSEG Long Island, both in Long Island, NY, announced on Jan. 5, 2019 an agreement, as part of a lawsuit settlement, to remove existing 24 steel poles that are around 80 feet tall and around 9 feet wide, carrying high-voltage transmission lines and will, instead, bury the transmission lines underground. This settlement does not include nearly 200 additional steel poles that remain from Eastport to Riverhead. These poles were installed in spring 2017 and already have been struck at least twice by cars including one fatality.

PSEG indicated that the estimated cost of $9 – 13.5 million would not be borne by ratepayers (i.e., customers) but, instead, from the utility’s capital budget. However, nearly all of LIPA’s costs will be ultimately paid by ratepayers. So, for LIPA customers, they would pay twice – first, for the installation of poles above ground and then for burying the lines underground.

When JCP&L first announced their plan to build the 230 kV transmission line through the five towns in Monmouth County (“MCRP”), some elected officials said that burying the line should be the first option. However, as most of you know, RAGE challenged the need for the transmission line and, two years later, both Judge Gail Cookson and NJ Board of Public Utilities agreed that JCP&L has not proven the need for the transmission line and denied the petition.

Historically, utility companies have always conveniently stated that burying power lines is cost prohibitive despite a lack of studies to make this case when one takes into account of all costs, including the direct and indirect costs to the affected communities.

In 2017, the Board of Trustees for LIPA adopted an undergrounding policy for placing transmission lines underground in the effort to enhance community character. In northern Virginia, thanks to the efforts by the citizen group “Coalition to Protect Prince William County”, a law was recently passed that provided for a pilot program for an underground transmission line.

Virginia Underground Transmission Pilot Program In the case of the California “Camp Fire”, given the total destruction of so many structures, including the town of Paradise, CA and with 20/20 hindsight, it can be argued that burying the lines might perhaps be “cheaper”.

Assuming that the need for a transmission line proposal is proven, there are concerns from the perspective of environmental issues, property value, public health risks due to EMF, public safety from downed wires, downed poles, terrorist attacks in addition to aesthetics/eye pollution for overhead transmission lines.

Utility companies have been very dismissive about these risks and concerns. Unfortunately, in many cases, regulators have also discounted these concerns when utility companies filed their plans for transmission line proposals.

However, if ratepayers are ultimately paying for the costs, shouldn’t ratepayers have a say in how transmission lines should be constructed (e.g., overhead vs. burying)? There are some that have now argued that burying power lines should be the default base case unless and until proven otherwise. Slowly but increasingly, these voices are being heard!

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