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Better Ask Barry: Should power lines be moved underground?

Nearly everyone agrees that power lines are unsightly, and stretching them through tree limbs can be dangerous.

Burying them in the ground would seem like a good idea.

The City of Carmel has researched the process, and found it extremely expensive.

“The rule of thumb is, for every mile you go underground, it’s about a million dollars,” said Bob Harary, Carmel’s public works director.

Other estimates run as high as $3 million per mile.

A portion of a ratepayer’s bill goes to fund what PG&E calls the Rule 20-A fund, which can help cities pay for certain undergounding projects.

“The City of Carmel has about $880,000 available to do this,” said Harary. “That would give us about ¾ of a mile.”

Undergrounding isn’t as simple as digging a hole.

Power poles are often shared by phone and internet companies, which have to sign on. Businesses and homeowners have to dig lines to connect. And the planning process can take years.

“My understanding of living and working in the Monterey Bay area for the past seven years, this is a 10-year design process. They’re backlogged that far back,” said Harary.

Underground power lines are more common in new construction, where transformers and other equipment are housed in above-ground boxes.

Although buried lines are safe from wind damage, they are still vulnerable to earthquakes, floods, and erosion.

According to the Public Utilities Commission, there are over 25-thousand miles of high voltage transmission lines in California, and almost 240-thousand miles of distribution lines.

At the current rate of construction, it would take more than a thousand years to convert them all to underground lines.

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