Sunday, March 08, 2009

Powerlines In Houston Should be Buried
Wouldn't the sky look lovely without those powerlines?

I was astonished to read about this report:
Burying the more than 6,500 miles of above-ground Texas electricity transmission lines near the Gulf Coast would cost some $33 billion but would not be a cost-effective solution, according to a report commissioned by the state’s utility commission.

The report by Quanta Technology released this week said the huge expenditure to bury the lines within a 50-mile radius of the coastline would likely only cut utility storm restoration costs by $27 million a year. The report was ordered by the Texas Public Utility Commission in late 2008 in the wake of Hurricane Ike’s extensive damage.

Fifteen storms struck Texas from 1998 to 2008, requiring about $1.8 billion in restoration costs, or $180 million annually, the report said. About 80 percent of the costs were attributed to the distribution system and 20 percent attributed to transmission.

Ok, if this article is correct, they are comparing the cost of burying power lines to the cost of restoration of those lines after they have been damaged by wind, falling tree limbs, lightning, etc. By that measure, it is obviously uneconomical for the power companies to do it.

But that is an insane way to measure something like this. The cost of downed powerlines is not merely born by the power companies! It's born by the businesses and homes that have to go without power for some period of time. And the cost of preparing for that risk (from buying candles and flashlights and wind-up radios to continual backing up of data). How much work time was lost because of Ike? That must have cost Houston area businesses millions if not billions. The company I worked for was closed for a couple of days. Many were closed for much longer times. This lost economic activity might be the biggest single cost associated with power outages.

To appropriately price this out, they should have accounted for that.

In addition, there is a lot of routine maintenance that must be done to prevent wind-related damage. Crews are always driving around trimming trees near powerlines, whether there is an outage or not. You have to count removing that cost as a benefit as well. Not only that, when there is a power outage, the power companies suffer lost revenues. Were those lost revenues counted in Quanta's model?

Furthermore, overhead powerlines have costs associated with them totally unrelated to the cost of repairing them after outages. Obviously putting up powerlines has a cost. Those poles aren't free. For powerlines that already exist, that is s sunk cost. But there is a replacement cost--those poles don't last forever--and in new developments, the cost of installing powerlines must be included. Also, it is illegal to plant trees a certain distance from powerlines. This limits property rights and limits shade in Houston--one of the hottest cities in the U.S. It's hard to say what this costs us, but it does have a cost. Likewise, overhead powerlines are ugly. Ugly has a cost that is hard to quantify, but it does exist. A more beautiful city is a city that is that much more liveable and desireable and competitive.

Given all this, and given the fact that the freaking federal government is trying its best to give infrastructure money away, I think we should ignore that foolish report, get some stimulus money, hire some unemployed construction workers, and start burying our goddamn power lines (and phone and cable lines).

(By the way, thanks to the Houston Business Journal for reporting this. I couldn't find anything in the Houston Chronicle about it! Did they drop the ball?)

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Blogger Unknown said...

This reminds me of a recent trip I took to the ship channel to meet a colleague. After our lunch I returned using Beltway 8 and while passing the 45 interchange I saw the huge cross that was recently erected, and also the power lines that are mounted in front of it. Maybe we need more divine help than a hurricane?

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't even think about it. Putting in MetroRail was a minor hassle compared to the disruptions that would be caused by burial of all the lines, which are not just power lines. Not incidentally.

I could go on. But I'd rather argue the question of what makes some transmission lines on poles more ugly than the rest of the typical urban environment.

Those lines are part and parcel of our daily existance and evolution into the wired society we are today. Look at them and think about your cable modem signal, and how easy it is to access a broken digital line, as opposed to someone having to crawl down a manway for long, inhospitable, dark, tunnels, populated by who knows what the hell would take up residence in a Houston tunnel system to rival that of, if not New York, at least Detroit.


5:03 PM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

"Those lines are part and parcel of our daily existance and evolution into the wired society we are today. Look at them and think about your cable modem signal, and how easy it is to access a broken digital line, as opposed to someone having to crawl down a manway for long, inhospitable, dark, tunnels [...]"

This doesn't seem like an argument about aesthetics (which is the least important part of my argument anyway) but about practicality. Would the damage done to wires by, say, rodents living in the wire conduits be severe, and would repairing said damage be difficult and expensive? Good questions, and obviously something you would want to anticipate and attempt to price into any cost/benefit analysis.

As for the disruption? As someone who lives along the Katy Freeway, I have witnessed thousands of fellow commuters and residents living with disruption. I drive up Gessner to the freeway every day--the crap they've been doing there has driven me nuts on a daily basis for over a year. But it gets done, and the end result is, hopefully, better than what we had before. The disruption would be staged and not everywhere at once. Having your street torn up would suck, but eventually they'd get 'er done. We live with these kinds of disruptions all the time. It's the cost of living in an ever-evolving city, where infrastructure needs constant repair, and the needs of citizens are constantly changing.

THanks for commenting!

5:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

To blogger,

I understand your frustration on how things should be done, and rightly so since your work has been affected.

You brought up a good point about including all the lost revenue from businesses, however, I don't think that affects the power company's immediately decision making process. If the businesses gain or lose money, it does not affect the utility's budget directly (Yes, less productivity can mean less electricity usage, but it is not an immediate impact).

With that being said, I still don't know what is the better solution, buried or not. Like you said, if they change existing poles to buried, that'll be a sunken cost. So, it is probably better to change them after they are damaged or something.

Anyways, thanks for bringing up this topic, it's good to know how other people feel about this issue.


7:23 AM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

dlam: Since Centerpoint is a regional monopoly (on transmission, not generation), they most certainly don't figure the costs to businesses and homes that happens due to an outage (although they do calculate their own lost revenue in such circumstances). Since I cannot change transmission my transmission provider (unless I somehow rig my house with its own generator), I am stuck with Centerpoint. So unlike competitive businesses, Centerpoint knows that bad service won't lose them many customers. I'm not saying that Centerpoint deliberately provides bad service in outages, but given their monopoly status and given that they do not bear a huge portion of the costs when there is an outage, they don't don't have much incentive to do the huge capital project of burying powerlines. That's why I suggest that they be incentivized to do so with a subsidy from the government. (All this is based on the assumption that buried powerlines would be less costly to operate and repair than overhead powerlines--and I don't really know if that is true.)

8:19 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Robert, thanks for the quick reply and the explanation about how the power company organization in Houston is structured.

I just spent the last hour googling news articles and discussions about cost benefit of buried vs. overhead power lines. All points to an increase of capital costs and life-cycle cost (sorry I did not bookmark the articles, but I'm sure you can find them easily).

However, one important factor is the adverse health effects of the electromagnetic fields emitted from the high voltage power lines to nearby residents. If you include the all the external costs, then I think you can make a case, but this case will need to be brought up to a higher level (i.e. governmental).

With what I've read now, I'm leaning towards buried as opposed to overhead power lines.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Most peeople are ignoring the health effects of the electromegnetic fields and even the radioactive leakage. Sure there is no research concluding to them, research require funding do you think power and cell phone companies are going to fund a research which may proof the problem. My wife had a brain timour doctors couldn't recognize when they saw it. Then we found out why because only 21 person in the world were diagnosed with that (rest died before diagnoses!). Remember Russian Chernobyl disaster? We visited Turkey at the time. The three others were Turkish and the rest from theneighboring countries.

10:51 AM  

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