7News Investigates: Seeking Power Outage Solutions Underground

(WHDH) — Winter storms knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes in Massachusetts this month. But what if your neighborhood’s power lines were shielded from snow and wind?

7News found that some towns are seeking solutions underground.

Three Nor’easters in ten days. Tree limbs and power lines littering the streets. Massachusetts cities and towns in the dark.

But not one town.

On Main Street in Holden, there are no electrical wires lining the sidewalks because they’re all underground. They’re also the main feeders that help power half of the town’s homes.

“We can either keep this area of town immune from a power outage, or if there is one, we get them back into service real fast,” said Jim Robinson, general manager of the Holden Municipal Light Department.

While Holden didn’t get the brunt of the storms, the town had a total of two homes lose power over the course of the three storms.

In Concord, which has also undergrounded some wires, less than two percent of customers were without power last Friday morning, as the cleanup from the second Nor’easter was still ongoing. In every town around it, that number was at least ten percent.

“Undergrounding will do a good job of mitigating the potential damage from wind events and flying debris,” said Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the Public Utility Research Center and the University of Florida, and an expert who has studied so-called undergrounding for the past decade.

But Kury said that despite the potential benefits, there are downsides.

Wires below ground are more susceptible to flooding damage, and outages that do occur can last longer because they’re harder to find and fix.

Then there’s the cost, which can be a shock to the system. Cost can vary widely depending on numerous factors like location and topography. But typical rough estimates for putting existing electrical wires underground are about $1 million per mile. With about 26,000 miles of overhead wires statewide, undergrounding all of it would potentially cost $26 billion.

The town of Southborough studied putting wires underground along a stretch of Route 30 several years ago. It balked at the cost, which was estimated at $7 to $8 million per mile.

“The costs are ultimately borne by the people – the customers, the taxpayers,” Kury said.

A few years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources studied the potential for undergrounding. It estimated electric bills would spike $40 to $100 per month.

“It’s highly unlikely that a blanket policy of ‘let’s put everything underground’ would be cost effective,” Kury said.

Still, that DOER study found that “converting a targeted selection of circuits may be… worth the investment.”

Experts said that the focus should be on lines that serve a lot of people, with little risk of flooding – like the ones in Holden.

There, it took $4 million to bury just two miles of wires. But Robinson said if it’s done right, it’s not a waste of energy.

“Yeah, it was expensive at the time. But you get decades of value out of it,” Robinson said.

Private electric companies say they already spend billions of dollars every year strengthening their grid in other ways, like improving tree maintenance and upgrading technology.

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