With thousands of houses still in the dark from last week’s ice storm and memories of the destructive 1991 fires still fresh, some Spokane city and county officials say it’s time to bury power lines.
Power companies say that proposal would be prohibitively expensive and impractical.
County Commissioner Steve Hasson is asking planners to study the possibility of requiring underground power lines in new developments. Existing lines should be buried when the county repaves roads or installs sewer lines, he said.
“Any place where there’s an opportunity to put power lines underground, we ought to require that,” said Hasson.
The same issue was raised during Tuesday’s meeting of the Spokane County Planning Commission.
It’s also been discussed this week at City Hall, said City Planner Charlie Dotson. He hasn’t had time to broach the matter with the City Council since the storm.
“It certainly is worth thinking about and studying,” Dotson said. “Obviously, the more power distribution systems you get underground, the less susceptible it is to natural forces like fire and ice.”
About 100,000 homes and businesses lost electricity last Tuesday, when a severe storm dumped snow, followed by frozen rain. Trees and limbs that couldn’t bear the weight crashed onto power lines, in some cases snapping utility poles.
The power outage is blamed for the deaths of a couple who tried to heat their trailer with briquettes and a Washington Water Power Co. worker who was electrocuted. Thousands of people face a dark Thanksgiving.
The crisis comes five years after 120 homes burned in a single day in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. The fires started when strong winds tossed trees across power lines.
Kim Zentz, WWP manager of technical services, said it costs 12 times more to bury distribution lines - those that feed neighborhoods - than to string them on poles. The lines themselves are more expensive, as is the cost of digging and filling trenches, she said.
Burying transmission lines - those that run from dams to substations - is 20 times more costly.
“Those (transmission) lines are over hill and dale and mountains and streams,” she said.
Unless all the lines are underground, little would be solved, Zentz said. Some neighborhoods that lost power last week have underground utilities, she noted.
While underground lines could prevent crises like fires and massive blackouts, everyday problems would be magnified by the challenge of locating breaks and other causes.
“You have more frequent and longer outages under normal conditions,” she said.
Most developers already install underground utilities in new subdivisions, said Mike Taylor, president of Taylor Engineering in Spokane.
“There have been very few (subdivisions) that I’ve worked on since the mid-‘70s that haven’t been underground,” Taylor said. “Nobody wants to buy a view house with a snarl of power lines in their view.”
Hasson acknowledged it’s more difficult and costly to bury utilities than to string them from poles.
“But when we look at the psychological cost of fire storm and the psychological cost of ice storm, it’s off-set,” he said.