50% Underground by 2040?

Can we achieve 50% underground by 2040? Let the debate begin. We set goals for renewables, net zero energy and carbon free energy. These resource-related goals will require a 21st Century distribution grid that is reliable, resilient, and still affordable. 

The electric distribution grid of the future will be a modern, integrated grid that accommodates distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, fuel cells, storage, and vehicles to grid electric vehicles (EV). This increasingly complex grid that delivers the clean electricity that we need for our future will be fundamentally transformed into a new and dynamic technological wonder. Underground electronic distribution lines will be an important part of that transformation. Therefore, as we set ambitious goals for clean electricity, we need to do the same for the distribution grid that delivers that electricity. We need to achieve 50% underground by 2040! 

Today, the electric distribution system in America is approximately 20% underground. Some public power companies like Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs, and Anaheim have had underground ordinances for years. They have beautified their cities and improved the performance of their systems. Fort Collins is 99% underground and is 99.9% reliable. Colorado Springs started in the 1970’s and today is 77% underground with 99.9% reliability. Anaheim has been engaged in their Home Underground Program (HUG) since 1990 with excellent results.  

Some investor-owned utilities (IOU’s) have put new neighborhoods underground for years, and now, many large IOU’s like PG&E, FP&L, WEC Energy Group and Dominion are engaged in multi-year, multi-billion dollar programs to “strategically” underground laterals and other key parts of their systems. PG&E will spend $15-$30 billion to underground the first 10% of their system. They plan to have 3,600 miles of line placed underground by 2026 and will then be one-third of the way to their 10,000 mile goal.  

Florida Power & Light (FPL) will ramp up in 2025 to a $1 billion per year spend on converting overhead laterals to underground. After the historic hurricane seasons of 2004-2005, when seven hurricanes affected Florida customers, FPL began making significant investments to strengthen the electric system and make the grid more resilient to severe weather.  

WEC Energy Group’s Wisconsin Public Service has undergrounded 2,000 miles of overhead lines in the last eight years, increasing their percent underground from 27% to 39%. WEC Energy Group’s projects have resulted in more than a 97% reduction in electric outage minutes in those areas where overhead lines have been replaced with underground circuits. 

Dominion Energy started their “strategic undergrounding” program almost 10 years ago. Today, they have achieved better system resiliency supported by empirical data.  

These municipal and IOU’s are starting to understand the total value of underground over the life of the asset. The data supports it: data on capital cost, data on reduced operations and maintenance (O&M) cost, time and safety exposure, data on customer satisfaction, data on reliability measured in minutes, and data on resiliency measured by total time line restoration. 

However, not everyone is an early adapter or fast follower. Some utilities are still wanting to build overhead power lines… many in scenic communities with neighbors that do not want the large, ugly poles. What is the total cost of ownership of these overhead lines compared to underground lines for the life of the asset? How much will vegetation management really cost 20 years from now? What is the cost for customer safety? 

There must be a better way to build electric infrastructure in our communities. What is the cost of tree trimming in 5-10 years? How can we reduce truck rolls? How can we improve worker and public safety? How can we beautify the streetscape and improve the quality of life for our customers? Electric utilities are asking these questions and, increasingly, the answer is “underground.” 

So, is 50% underground by 2040 an unreasonable goal? Will an underground grid with better equipment, cables, splices and terminations be enough? Will the new underground line sensing technology married with artificial intelligence deliver as promised? Will we drive real cost out of O&M? Will 50% be transformational or do we really need more, like 75% underground to achieve our reliability and resiliency goals? 

We need to address these issues in the years to come. Our industry needs to have a debate. Will stakeholders agree? Time will tell.

Michael E. Beehler


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