Columns

Suffolk Closeup: Time to go underground

On his last day as president and CEO of the Long Island Association (LIA), Kevin Law sent a letter to President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) requesting federal help for the so-called “undergrounding” of electric lines on Long Island. Mr. Law knows the situation well. Before becoming the head of the LIA in 2010, the region’s largest business organization, Mr. Law was president and CEO of the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) which owns those lines.

Many if not most of Long Island’s roads are lined with trees and the region has a near dependence on transmitting electricity through lines on poles. Getting hit with a big storm means outages. More extreme storms can be expected as a result of climate change, and thus even more wide scale outages.

Likewise, on Shelter Island electric lines are above ground.

Last year I told in this space about an article on T&D World, a website for utilities, headlined: “It’s Time for Utilities to Reconsider Undergrounding Power Lines.” It stated that “climate change is unquestionably generating intense, costly storms … a hard fact that utilities must confront.” It said “most utilities opt not to bury power lines due to cost. But leaving so much of our power infrastructure exposed to environmental assault may not be worth the short-term cost savings.”

Indeed, undergrounding electric lines is more expensive than stringing lines on poles. But needing to be considered are the huge costs of post-hurricane, post-storm electric restorations. We must recognize too, the terrible hardships that extended outages cause.

Mr. Law on April 1 wrote to Messrs. Biden and Schumer: “As our country continues to respond and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, this is indeed an opportunity to re-imagine and rebuild a new economy. The Long Island Association … supports your efforts to invest in our national infrastructure and create new through the proposed American Jobs Plan.”

“As for the $100 billion earmarked to update the country’s electric grid, we encourage you to make these funds available to make electric grids more resilient to climate disasters on Long Island,” he stated. “Portions of this pot of funds should be used to bury the electric grid on Long Island. Owned by the Long Island Power Authority, our region’s electric transmission and distribution system is primarily above ground and contains approximately 10,000 miles of overhead lines.”

“Major storms, including Hurricane Isaias, Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Gloria demonstrated the immense vulnerabilities of our grid,” said Mr. Law. “These storms caused significant disruption and widespread damage such as downed trees and fallen power lines and left most of Long Island’s residents and businesses in the dark, with some out for longer than a week.”

Mr. Law declared: “The modernization and hardening of the country’s electric systems could increase our economic competitiveness around the world, spur additional growth and create jobs while establishing a more resilient infrastructure to combat the negative impact of climate change. The undergrounding of Long Island’s power lines would advance those goals while benefiting every single Long Islander.”

It’s great that Mr. Law — as he closed out his tenure at the LIA — addressed this important issue. It’s high time to get electric lines in this area lowered into the ground.

I wrote in this column last year about my 1986 book, “Power Crazy,” and how on its cover was a photo of a Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) pole with it and its electric lines tilted at a 45-degree angle after Hurricane Gloria struck the year before. The book started, I noted, with how Hurricane Gloria caused a loss of electricity to 700,000 customers of LILCO (whose poles and lines were acquired by LIPA when it was established). But Power Crazy pointed out, service to 96 percent of telephone customers on Long Island had not been interrupted.

Why?

“New York Telephone began placing cable underground wherever feasible in the early 1970s in connection with a nationwide trend to avoid visual pollution and increased corporate concerns for cost-reduction,” explained company spokesperson Bruce W. Reisman. “Cost studies clearly indicated to us that it would simply be less costly for us over the long term to place much of our telephone cables underground. It is generally less expensive to maintain a telephone plant when it is underground. This is because underground facilities are less likely to be damaged by falling trees or branches, high winds, ice storms, etc …”

What’s good for telephone lines is good for electric lines — going underground.