Council Says: Okay, Maybe We’ll Bury the Power Lines After All

The first step will be studying feasibility

Thousands were without power after a major ice storm downed trees on power lines last month (photo by Jana Birchum)

Austin Energy has been clear that untrimmed tree branches were not a major factor in the widespread and prolonged power outages that hit Austin during Winter Storm Mara. Power lines were damaged throughout the city because of all the ice that accumulated on branches and the lines themselves, which together caused unprecedented levels of damage to the city's network of overhead power lines.

But had the lines been buried underground, perhaps fewer people would have lost power, and repair crews from AE and neighboring electrical utilities could have spent less time repairing damaged lines. Plus, buried lines are protected against other environmental hazards amid a changing climate – like extreme winds and wildfires – so why not just bury lines throughout the city? It's prohibitively expensive, Austin Energy says, estimating it would cost about $1 million per mile to bury roughly 5,000 miles of overhead lines hung throughout the utility's distribution system. Plus, burying lines in flood-prone Austin would be ill-advised, according to AE (and our soil's high water retention is another complicating factor).

However, a pair of resolutions from Council Mem­bers Ryan Alter and Vanessa Fuentes would direct staff at AE and other departments to explore the question. Alter's resolution asks for a feasibility study and development of a "long-term capital improvement plan" for burying power lines in areas where high-priority uses occur and that are not expected to see new construction in the near future. The resolution also directs staff to develop a methodology for prioritizing areas based on facts like surrounding critical infrastructure, health and safety resources, and areas that have endured frequent power outages.

Both resolutions also ask staff to start thinking about how electrical lines could be buried during construction carried out both by public and private parties. Specifically, the Fuentes resolution asks staff to explore how underground power lines could be incorporated into capital projects – such as Cap Metro's planned transit expansion, Project Connect – that are already in the planning and design phase. The resolution asks staff to identify projects that could be used as a pilot area for altering plans to include buried power lines, and also that factors similar to those included in Alter's resolution should be considered in choosing the pilot areas.

Both items are posted on City Council's March 23 agenda and they each have four sponsors and no opposition yet, so they're each likely to pass.

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Austin Energy, Winter Storm Mara, Ryan Alter, Vanessa Fuentes

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