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Efforts To Shore Up The Electrical Grid Could Mean Moving Power Lines Underground

An electric power station near Hulbert, Okla. Lake Region Electric Cooperative built the area's electric infrastructure when it was formed in 1949.
Seth Bodine / KOSU
An electric power station near Hulbert, Okla. Lake Region Electric Cooperative built the area's electric infrastructure when it was formed in 1949.

More power lines could move underground as part of an effort included in the infrastructure bill to update the nation’s energy system, but rural energy providers still worry about the cost of installation and maintenance.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate in August, includes $73 billion to modernize the electric grid. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm says moving power lines underground, a practice called “undergrounding,” may be part of that effort.

She says this would protect consumers from blackouts caused by severe weather. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands are already moving their power lines underground, and Granholm says that’s something the U.S. should invest in too.

“In other countries, there's a lot of effort of undergrounding distribution and transmission wires, where you can put soil over the top and just farm on top of it and have the farmer compensated for this line that goes underneath the ground that you can't even see,” Granholm says. “So there's things like that I think we've got to be moving in on on the transmission side.”

Moving wires completely underground wouldn’t be easy. Burying power lines generally costs $1 million per mile and even more depending on geography and population, according to an analysis by Theodore Kury, the director of energy studies at the University of Florida.

For member-owned rural electric cooperatives, the price of installation and maintenance may be too much.

Chris Meyers, the general manager of the Oklahoma Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, says moving electric lines underground is actually more expensive than burying fiber for the internet.

“Electricity seeks ground. And so when you bury electricity, just the tiniest pinhole in that insulating sheath, and you have a problem,” Meyers says. “That's why overhead [powerlines] is [sic] so much cheaper. Burying fiber is a smaller cable, it can be trenched in very quickly and not as deep and with fewer problems because it does not carry a high voltage.”

But Meyers says the infrastructure bill could help in other ways, like transmission.

“There's a lot of money for electrification of transportation,” Meyers says. “And if we go down that path, and I believe we will, it's just a matter of how fast it's going to require a large investment in our electric grid to be able to serve that tremendous amount of load.”

Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
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