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Council members like the idea of burying power lines. Austin Energy? Not so much.

A crane hoists an Austin Energy employee up in the air so they can repair a power line damaged from ice-laden tree branches.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Austin Energy crews clear fallen branches from power lines in South Austin after February's ice storm.

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After falling, ice-laden tree limbs left hundreds of thousands of Austinites without electricity this winter, a lot of people started wondering: “Why don’t we just bury our power lines?”

This week, Austin City Council will consider two proposals that could eventually lead to just that, though the city’s electric utility has warned of the cost.

The benefits of burying power lines are clear. Putting lines underground protects them from falling branches, greatly reduces the risk of electricity-caused wildfires, beautifies neighborhoods and decreases time and money spent on vegetation management.

One recent studyfound that strategically burying just 5% of overhead power lines around Houston could cut the number of people impacted by hurricane-related power outages by almost half.

But burying lines is also expensive. Texas Public Utility Commission Chair Peter Lake has estimated it could cost around $1 million a mile.

Currently, Austin Energy’s electric distribution system has approximately 5,000 miles of overhead lines, and 7,000 miles of underground lines.

To better understand the feasibility of moving some Austin electric lines underground, District 5 Council Member Ryan Alter has introduced a City Council resolution ordering city staff to study the issue.

Alter’s agenda item, if approved, would also direct staff to “develop a long-term capital improvement plan for converting overhead electric utility distribution lines to underground electric utility distribution lines for high-priority uses and areas without new construction opportunities.”

Another proposal from District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes tells staff to look at how burying lines might be integrated into other big infrastructure projects, like Capital Metro’s Project Connect, to save costs.

Fuentes’ item will also identify areas where a pilot project for burying lines could be conducted.

I can tell you right now that, in conversations with folks in my neighborhood, in my district, we would be happy to be the guinea pigs for a pilot project for burying lines,” District 4 Council Member Chito Vela, a co-sponsor of the proposals, told members of Austin Energy’s Utility Oversight Committee last month. District 4 spans much of Central North Austin.

Austin City Council will vote on Alter's and Fuentes' proposals at this Thursday's council meeting.

Austin’s city-owned utility, Austin Energy, has not shared City Council’s enthusiasm for the idea of burying power lines.

At last month’s Utility Oversight Committee meeting, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent told City Council members that the utility plans to conduct its own study into the costs of burying all overhead power lines in the city.

She strongly implied that the results of that study would serve to dissuade the city from pursuing the idea.

"Burying our distribution lines would be prohibitively expensive and very disruptive. We as a utility know this intuitively, but the community may not,” Sargent said. “And we don't have a feasibility study that illustrates the extent of what this would take.”

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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