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Underground lines can inspire sticker shock

Sept. 3, 2011 - Martin B. Cassidy - ctpost.com

STAMFORD -- There's an underground movement across much of the country to bury power and other utility lines to shield against widespread outages like that caused by Tropical Storm Irene last week.

Despite record-breaking power outages in Connecticut that left more than 800,000 state residents in the dark in the wake of Irene, state legislators, officials and Connecticut Light and Power said the damage is unlikely to spark momentum to bury a network of underground lines which are more impervious to damage related to wind or falling trees, officials said.

As residents wait days for power to come on after major storm-related outages, some New Canaan residents suggest moving overhead power lines off poles and underground out of the elements, First Selectman Jeb Walker said.

After power returns and the potential cost of the lines is discussed--sometimes millions of dollar to the mile-- enthusiasm to bury the lines quickly disappears, Walker said.

" It's incredibly expensive," Walker said. "We're not going to propose it though we talk about it from time to time when there is an outage. The cost is prohibitive and the public doesn't want to pay the taxes for it. Frankly I agree with them."

State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, a member of the Legislature's Energy and Technology Committee, said several Stamford neighborhoods have considered the possibility of underground lines to improve reliability only to balk at the cost and disruption the migration would cause.

" I think everybody would rather we were able to bury them underground," Tong said. "The problem is the level of cost and construction that comes along with it ... It's thousands and thousands of dollars per foot."

CL&P is willing to place local power distribution lines underground at the request of towns or private developers as long as they pick up the additional cost of the work, utility spokesman Mitch Gross said.

Installing the lower voltage distribution lines costs about $3.5 million a mile to set up, compared to $800,000 a mile for an overhead system, according to CL&P's estimates.

" We have many inquiries from the towns we serve about relocating power lines underground, which typically involve aesthetics and storms," Gross said. "But once they learn of what it would cost them and what is involved, they put those ideas aside."

To sharpen the discussion about underground lines, Connecticut officials could fund an independent cost-benefit analysis which could verify or contradict the exorbitant figures quoted by industry officials for underground lines, state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee said.

" It would give us real hard data and it would be independent and not just from the utilities or the groups that favor maintaining overhead lines," Duff said. "I think that a lot of people support undergrounding in concept but the utilities say it is absolutely prohibitive."

The state is in the process of estimating the economic damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has announced a program to be administered through the Department of Economic and Community Development to provide loans to businesses to help recover from uninsured losses.

Tong said that there has not been a study that weighed widespread economic losses that might be prevented by less storm-prone underground power lines.

" There have been ongoing discussions that usually ends up with discussion of its cost-prohibitive nature," Tong said. "If it makes sense we can look at it, but that being said, even doing a study in itself is costly and something that people have to make. If they want us to spend the money we could do it."

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