Power Lines are Moving Underground—How this Impacts You



Have you ever looked up at the cluttered power lines, tangled around those tall, splintering wooden poles and thought “that doesn’t look very safe”? In a handful of cases, you’d actually be correct. Power lines can be extremely dangerous because they carry high voltages of electricity, and many times, those messy high-voltage lines haven’t been updated in years. Should you ever come into contact with a power line, you could be seriously injured or even killed.  

The safety concerns surrounding power lines aren’t new by any means. The potential vulnerabilities of the American power grid have been the focus of several Congressional hearings and commissions since the early 2010s. While we can’t combat the dangers in one fell swoop, one solution has found some solid traction—moving power lines underground. 

Table of Contents:

    1. Early Undergrounding
    2. A Nation Divided
    3. Existing Underground Power Lines
    4. Is This a Good Idea?
    5. Advantages
    6. Disadvantages
    7. What This Means for You
    8. As a Consumer
    9. As an Electrical Professional
    10. What to Expect



      Early Undergrounding 

      Whispers of America’s grid system being outdated have been heard for about a decade, though there was never any viable solution apart from the existing push for green and renewable energy. No one really bothered to consider the concept of undergrounding as a means of shoring up the grid, which is surprising because the concept has existed since the 1880’s.  

      With the spread of early electrical power systems, undergrounding began to increase as well. In fact, it was Thomas Edison who used underground DC “street pipes” in his early distribution networks; they were insulated first with jute in 1880, before progressing to rubber insulation in 1882. 

      So why did we stop?  



      A Nation Divided 

      The one-word answer? Money. The process of undergrounding our entire electrical system would cost more than the United States was ready to shell out at the time. Consider the time frame of this industrial change—America was freshly wrapping up with their Civil War and going through what we call the Guilded Age which was a time of rapid industrialization and economic expansion.  

      Still reeling from the civil war however, the nation remained divided on a handful of issues, including the distribution of wealth across multiple platforms. So, while there were bustling cities in the north including New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC that could benefit from undergrounding their electrical system, the south didn’t have the funds to do something so grandiose.   


      Existing Underground Power Lines 

      As I mentioned earlier, undergrounding isn’t a new concept by any means. In fact, there are a bunch of cities in Europe and Asia that have already begun this process. In Germany, 73% of the medium voltage cables are underground and 87% of low voltage cables are already underground. In cities like Tokyo, Japan, and Seoul, South Korea, underground electrical infrastructure has been in use for decades, and has helped to support these cities' rapid growth and development.  

      Now that the United States is progressing this way as well, California has been one of the first states to begin the push. PG&E, one of the largest power companies in California has already begun to put 350 miles of powerlines underground as of 2023. This movement is a part of their 10,000-Mile Undergrounding Program, which was unveiled in 2021. Since then, their total underground powerlines span a little more than 600 miles. Additionally, cities like Chicago and San Francisco have made significant investments in underground electrical infrastructure in recent years, recognizing the benefits it can bring to their communities. 


      Is This a Good Idea? 

      That is the question that everyone seems to be asking when it comes to this massive undertaking of infrastructural change. While there is no short answer, I say yes.  

      As of early March 2024, California regulators have approved a new program to expedite power line undergrounding, which means it must be doing well so far. It's always valuable to look at things objectively, so, let’s take a look at the facts. 



      Aside from the fact that powerlines can look like an ugly mess in an otherwise beautiful landscape, undergrounding poses many benefits.

      • Power lines are less subject to damage from severe weather conditions, meaning less hazardous power outages (mainly lightning, hurricanes/cyclones/typhoons, tornados, other winds, and freezing). 
      • Majorly decreased risk of fire. Overhead power lines can cause large heat spikes and fires. 
      • Reduced range of electromagnetic fields (EMF) emission into the surrounding area. EMF has been known to cause some human diseases due to high exposure. 
      • Underground cables need a narrower surrounding strip of about 1–10 meters to install, whereas an overhead line requires a surrounding strip of about 20–200 meters wide to be kept permanently clear for safety, maintenance and repair. 
      • Underground cables pose no hazard to low-flying aircraft or to wildlife. 
      • Underground cables have a much-reduced risk of damage caused by human activity such as theft, illegal connections, sabotage, and damage from accidents. 
      • Burying utility lines makes room for more large trees on sidewalks, for environmental benefits and increase of property values. 



      Naysayers of undergrounding have been leaning on the same arguments since the concept was first introduced. These include the following:

      • Undergrounding is more expensive, since the cost of burying cables at transmission voltages is several times greater than overhead power lines, and the life-cycle cost of an underground power cable is two to four times the cost of an overhead power line.  
      • Whereas finding and repairing overhead wire breaks can be accomplished in hours, underground repairs can take days or weeks, and for this reason redundant lines are run. 
      • Underground cables are more subject to damage by ground movement. The 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand caused damage to 360 kilometers (220 mi) of high voltage underground cables and subsequently cut power to large parts of Christchurch city.  


      When you look at the big picture, the pros outweigh the cons here. I get it though, the cons might feel big when you consider the cost of this endeavor, but when has the price point ever stopped the U.S before when it comes to building better infrastructure? 



      According to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2023, the Senate has set aside money for loads of other projects including: 

      • $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major projects 
      • $11 billion for transportation safety programs 
      • $39 billion to modernize transit and improve accessibility 
      • $66 billion for passenger and freight rail 
      • $7.5 billion to build a national network of electric vehicle chargers 
      • $73 billion to overhaul the nation's power infrastructure, clean energy transmission, and overall energy policy 
      • $65 billion for broadband development 

      And that’s just the beginning! If we look at the money poured into our water, energy, and septic systems, the number is already well over $1.2 Trillion. Anyone saying that the undergrounding project is “too costly” hasn’t taken a hard look at what we’re already funding.  


      What This Means for You 

      As a consumer  

      If you are a resident of California, you’ve probably already seen some of these updates happening. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the process, you’ll likely only notice a few changes to your daily life.  

      Increased construction on sidewalks and some roads might mean the occasional traffic delay but let's be honest—if you live in California, you’re familiar with that already. You’ll also see some of your tax money going toward undergrounding, which doesn’t really change the fact that you’re paying taxes, it just changes where the money goes.  

      Another change will be a decrease in power outages. You may not notice this right away, as we only tend to notice a power outage when we’re in the middle of one. However, after a storm blows through, you’ll notice the lack of dark spots on the electrical grid.  


      As an electrical professional   

      As we’ve already established, power lines can be dangerous to work around. Moving them underground would decrease the risk of electrocution and harm to electrical professionals.  

      Electricians can also benefit from this by charging more up front for a better service. With the lack of power outages, a well-established electrician can make more money by switching their services to undergrounding. The maintenance for this change would be significantly less frequent, but would cost more—again, putting more money in the pockets of electricians. 

      With today’s technological advances to wiring and insulation, underground powerlines are far less likely to fail due to human error. This includes things like vandalism, car’s crashing into electrical towers/poles, children damaging powerlines with a ball or a kite, and more. The industry would generally find itself more stable, clearing up the crowded electrical grid while making the practice safer. 

      Possible downsides to undergrounding for professionals include similarities to those for the general public. The amount of time and energy put into a standard job would increase, due to additional work needed on the construction aspect of each project. The cost of parts would expect to see an increase, as undergrounded wires are higher quality. While independent electricians may find this bothersome, wholesalers and contractors would benefit from the price increase. 


      What to Expect 

      With more and more cities voting to move their power lines undergrounds, the expectation isn’t an if, but a when. Much of the nation’s critical infrastructure, including water, sewage and natural gas lines, already are underground. It seems like the natural progression of our electrical system to move that as well. This is especially prevalent when you look at upcoming developments in clean energy and electrical vehicles that the grid needs to make space for. Undergrounding is the best solution to our grid system issues and while it may come with a handful of cautions, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the future. 



      • Posted on by Mooresville Septic System Repair

        This is a fascinating article about the transition to underground power lines. The improved reliability and reduced fire risk are definite advantages. The blog mentions potential disruptions during construction. For homeowners with septic systems, are there any specific precautions taken to avoid damaging underground septic tanks during the process of burying power lines?

      • Posted on by Dan
        Good info!

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