No, putting power lines underground is not the answer in Michigan

One trade group found that undergrounding is too costly in hurricane zones, let alone Michigan

The wind blows in Michigan. It knocks trees down, and the trees knock down power lines.

A frequently asked question, after tree-related power outages is: Why not bury the power lines?

The Michigan Public Service Commission touched on the question in its Sept. 8 feedback to utility companies’ distribution plans. Long story short: Burying old power lines is too costly and takes too many employees to make sense.

Contractors on new construction in Michigan are required to build power lines underground. But older construction, which accounts for most of the homes and businesses in Michigan, does not have to have buried utility lines.

The public service commission asked several groups in Michigan to offer feedback on the utility companies’ plans. One of the questions the feedback was to consider is the feasibility of placing existing power lines underground.

One of the groups offering feedback, the Association of Businesses Advocating Tariff Equity, told the commission, “Undergrounding, while an intuitive and aesthetically attractive idea, is otherwise unfortunately infeasible and impractical,” according to the 83-page report.

“ABATE mentions undergrounding being infeasible in hurricane zones and asserts that, ‘[i]f undergrounding isn’t cost-effective in hurricane zones, it will certainly not be cost-effective in Michigan,’” the report says.

ABATE warned that burying power lines is “not the panacea many believe it to be.”

Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said undergrounding brings its own issues.

“It can make accessing utility infrastructure extremely difficult when it needs to be repaired,” Hayes told Michigan Capitol Confidential. “Repairs might be more infrequent, but when they are needed, it becomes a much bigger job because you’re tearing up streets and yards.”

The local government groups the commission consulted argue that putting old lines underground can be done piecemeal, in areas where there is “digging for other purposes.” They believe the entire grid can be undergrounded within 20 years.

Commission staff argue that “it is simply too expensive, and such an undertaking would pull too many utility employees away from other projects.”

To summarize: The people who want to put the grid underground don’t control the purse strings. And the people in the energy industry say the costs are too high.

It is unlikely we will ever see the entire Michigan power grid buried underground.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.