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A recent week of winter weather cut the power to hundreds of thousands of people in the Seattle area for several days. A lot of those people were left wondering an old question: why are their neighborhood power lines aboveground? As NPR's Martin Kaste found out, nobody seems to have a complete answer.
MARTIN KASTE: Weather and tree branches cause 40 percent of power outages in the U.S. Forests and suburbs are especially vulnerable, Washington, the Evergreen State, routinely ranks among the top 10 states for total number of outages.
Pete Mirage is picking up the branches after the latest winter storm. Mirage just moved back to the U.S. from the Caribbean, where he was used to storm outages, but he was surprised to find the same problem here.
PETE MIRAGE: Power going out was something I experienced in the Third World, not in the first world.
KASTE: Other industrialized countries have more of their neighborhood power distribution underground. David Lindsay, an expert at the Electric Power Research Institute, says places like Western Europe have an edge because they rebuilt their cities after the war.
DAVID LINDSAY: A lot of the infrastructure there is much younger than it is here. Infrastructure, in general, here dates to before World War II, and it was just added on and added on and added on.
KASTE: American cities could upgrade by going underground, but that's an expensive proposition.
LINDSAY: Well, a general rule of thumb that we use is a factor of 10. The installation cost, construction cost is a factor of 10 difference between overhead and underground.
KASTE: At the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, Tom Schooley says storm outages sometimes get communities talking about undergrounding their lines.
TOM SCHOOLEY: Whenever people mention it or if some municipality wants to do it underground, then they see the expense and they say, oh, well, never mind.
KASTE: So the barrier is the upfront cost, but what about the long-term savings? Storm after storm, there's all that overtime pay for out-of-state repair crews, not to mention what the outages cost business.
SCHOOLEY: It's an interesting question, and I have to say it is, literally, not part of the conversation that people have.
KASTE: Stephen Hammer is professor of energy planning at MIT, and he says he's searched the literature in his field for any analysis of what it costs us to keep fixing those overhead wires.
STEPHEN HAMMER: Some things are just never raised. And I think you're touching on an issue that we just never get to until there is some call it a crisis when the wires come down and we're saying, why do we do this? Why do we keep doing this?
KASTE: One exception is Florida. The state has told utilities that next time there's a hurricane, they should track the expense of fixing the aboveground lines so that can be compared to the maintenance costs of the underground lines. The result could go either way. Tom Schooley says it's important to remember that underground wires are not foolproof.
SCHOOLEY: Undergrounding doesn't mean it's totally safe or totally uninterrupted. It may have different interruptions. It might survive a storm, but it doesn't survive a backhoe.
KASTE: So the bottom line is nobody knows the bottom line. Nobody has gone past the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis. So even if cities like Seattle had the money for undergrounding, there's no way to know if it's a good investment, and they have little incentive to change how things are done.
SCOTT RICE: This pole broke off because a tree hit the phone line.
KASTE: After yet another storm, a lineman named Scott Rice lashes one pole to another with what looks like piano wire.
RICE: We're all about safety here at Seattle City Light.
KASTE: Do you wish this stuff were underground sometimes, you know, with all our branches that we've got around here?
RICE: Well, no, then I wouldn't have a job.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KASTE: As things stand, Rice doesn't have to worry about his job security. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.