Keep the lights on

JSblogA recent spate of winter storms reminded me how desperately the county—and indeed the region and nation—need to get on board with installing electric and communications utility lines, below ground.

Weather and falling tree branches cause 40 percent of power outages in the United States, according to Erich Gunther, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical And Electronics Engineers. Another 10 to 35 percent are caused by animals—mostly squirrels—and traffic accidents involving utility poles. During last month’s storms, over 100,000 people in Fairfax County were left without power.

The electric grid consists of thousands of fuses, junction boxes and other electro-mechanical parts. Like your cellphone, these systems work best when exposed to the middle of the temperature and moisture range they were designed for.  However, even the best designed above ground utility transmission systems rarely survive being struck by high winds or vehicular traffic. Systems that pass through forested areas or heavily traveled roadways, like Richmond Highway, are especially vulnerable.

So it was with great interest that I recently read that legislation introduced by Virginia state Senator Scott Surovell would provide a funding mechanism to finance the installation of underground utility lines.  Surovell’s bill, SB1759, would enable Fairfax County to levy a tax of not more than $1 per month on electric bills throughout the county to help pay for placing electric distribution lines underground alongside roads with transit-oriented development.

It can cost as much as 10 times as much to bury power wires instead of stringing them overhead, according to some industry estimates. So paying for buried power lines is not inconsequential. What’s more, not every typography, such as areas prone to frequent flooding, can accept buried lines.

Still, much of Europe is powered by underground utilities as is Wall Street and the federal district of our Nation’s capital. As a result, power outages in these areas are rare. In addition to the improvements in the reliability of power transmission, installing power lines underground helps prevent electrocution deaths and keep the public and utility workers safer.

Surovell’s bill passed both houses of the General Assembly last month and is awaiting the Governor’s signature.

I encourage you to urge Gov. Ralph Northam to sign this sorely needed legislation. I also urge you to keep pressure on law makers and regulators to require that utility power lines be buried as a part of any major infrastructure project, such as the widening of the Richmond Highway corridor.

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