It’s Time for Underground Transmission Lines

What do the Camp wildfire in California, sales of Tesla Model 3, and the east coast hurricanes have in common? The answer is that currently, none involve underground electric transmission and distribution lines.

The Camp Wildfire in Northern California this year was the deadliest in the history of California. At least 85 people died, 12,000 structures were destroyed, and over 220 square miles were burned. This one wildfire alone caused 10 billion dollars in property damage. Although climate change-induced drought and increasing population density both contributed to the catastrophe, the ultimate cause was most likely a short in an overhead electric transmission line.

Several million people lost electric power due to Hurricanes Michael and Florence. Extensive damage to downed transmission and distribution lines can take weeks to replace or repair. This delay impacts the local economy and threatens the health of those dependent on hospitals, clinics, and electrically powered medical devices. The cost to repair the electrical grid damage will be tens of millions of dollars.

Tesla’s lower cost but still pricey Model 3 is outselling all other luxury cars combined. In August it became the fifth highest selling car in the United States. As we convert our transportation systems to electric power we need to upgrade and expand our electrical grid.

At the same time, climate change is threatening the stability of traditional overhead transmission and distribution lines. Storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes can knock down lines. Floods and droughts both can cause shorting of lines and loss of power. It is time to consider burying our grid. Estimates of the costs of burying the grid as opposed to overhead lines vary wildly, some up to a order of magnitude higher.

Not calculated in these costs are the externalities mentioned above. Also as is often the case, the price of modernization goes down with both economies of scale and improvement in the technology itself.

A couple of years ago a major controversy raged across this part of Arkansas over the proposal for a large transmission line designed to bring cheap wind-generated electricity from the midwest to consumers to our east. Politics, the advent of cheap natural gas from fracking, and strenuous objections from landowners caused the cancellation (delay?) of this project.

There is no question that vast reserves of cheap wind energy exist on the great plains, but the power needs to be delivered to users, most of which are to the east of the plains. Large-scale transmission lines are needed.

One project looks to the future. A 350 mile HVDC underground transmission line has been proposed to run from Mason City, Iowa to Chicago. It will take advantage of cheap wind power. To lower project costs the line will use existing railway rights of way. Major transmission lines could also be located aside highway rights of way. It is not safe to put overhead lines along highways as they present a serious collision hazard.

All of our infrastructure needs maintenance and occasional upgrades as environmental conditions change. We can pay for a more stable climate and resilient electrical grid now, or have our children pay much more in the future.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

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