Lowcountry slow to bury power lines

After Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston in September 1989, some residents remained without power for weeks as electric crews from all over scrambled to repair and replace power lines.

A generation after Hurricane Hugo struck, most Lowcountry communities have made little progress putting power lines underground — a step that would help harden infrastructure before the next big storm.

Burying power lines also would resolve a most common complaint coming from local neighborhoods, where routine tree pruning around overhead lines often causes tempers to boil at the sight of disfigured trees.

While few lines have been buried, most new developments over a certain size have had to place their power lines underground.

A decade ago, the South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. — which serves much of the metro Charleston area — estimated that about 80 percent of its statewide distribution network was overhead lines, while 20 percent was buried. Today, it figures that has dropped to about 70 percent overhead, 30 percent buried.

Bill Turner, SCE&G’s vice president of electric operations, said that change mostly reflects new developments with buried lines — not overhead lines that have been removed. “We just increased on the underground number,” he said.

One reason why so many overhead lines remain is the cost and complexity of burying them.

A 2003 study by the North Carolina Natural Disaster Preparedness Task Force concluded that it was not feasible to replace overhead distribution lines built by that state’s largest private power companies.

“Such an undertaking would cost approximately $41 billion and require 237 million man-hours to complete,” it said, adding it would take nearly 5,000 employees 25 years to finish the work — and would result in higher power bills.

The slow approach here contrasts sharply with what the Northeast has done in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. There, Consolidated Edison has launched a four-year, $1 billion project to storm-harden its infrastructure from another major weather event. Last month, it said it had prevented 20,000 power outages because of improvements made to its system, including installing devices to its overhead system that limit outages there.

In the Lowcountry, cities have far less money for putting lines underground — and they have taken very different approaches to spending it.

Decades ago, SCE&G worked to place some utility lines underground in sensitive areas, such as the streets surrounding Charleston’s historic Four Corners of Law.

But the utility was sensitive to potential criticism that its customers in some communities might be subsidizing the costly job of burying lines underground in other communities, so it created a new template in 1996.

That’s when the city of Charleston extended its franchise agreement with the South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. and created a blueprint for partnerships between the utility, the city and neighborhoods interested in having their power lines buried. The deal allotted a portion of money for burying lines.

Other cities took similar approaches when they extended their agreements and created other new pools of money for putting lines underground.

“The mechanism we set up is to allow the municipalities to have some choice, but at the same time, we don’t have cross-subsidization,” Turner said. “Somebody in Allendale couldn’t say, ‘I don’t get any benefit from it but it’s built into my rates.’ ”

In the city of Charleston, neighborhoods interested in getting their lines buried could petition the city and get on a list — first come, first served. However, the neighborhoods then had to agree to provide the necessary easements for ground-level equipment and to have the city place a lien on affected properties to cover 15 percent of the total cost. The city would contribute 35 percent, and SCE&G would cover the rest.

About a dozen Charleston neighborhoods have expressed interest and are on the city’s list, but only three — The Crescent, Country Club I and Headquarters Island — have seen work completed. Two downtown projects — a block of Orange Street south of Broad Street and in the Ansonborough neighborhood — are pending but construction has not begun, to date.

Getting a neighborhood’s power lines placed underground hinges on several factors: at least two-thirds of the area’s property owners must be willing to tax themselves to pay their share of the work — and to provide easements for the on-ground equipment.

In County Club I, the James Island neighborhood that was among the first, those liens were about $2,000 per home but varied based on a property’s street frontage and assessed value. Property owners had 10 years to pay it off without interest.

The city of North Charleston extended a similar deal to its neighborhoods, but got no takers. A portion of Park Place near Park Circle tried but could not collect the necessary signatures, said Ray Anderson, special assistant to Mayor Keith Summey.

“We’d be glad to work with them anytime they want to work with us,” Anderson said. “You just have to have some folks willing to roll up their sleeves to get it done.”

Instead, the city has used the money in the fund to remove overhead lines from its East Montague Avenue commercial center, though the lines were not buried but simply moved from that street to others behind the restaurants, offices and shops. Anderson said the city also is using the money to bury lines near the Centre Pointe development on West Montague.

“We’re going to basically keep plugging away at it,” he said. “It’s a slow process.”

In Mount Pleasant, the money has been used to bury power lines along some of the town’s most prominent and scenic roads. Residents along Mathis Ferry Road concerned about tree trimming took the lead to get the town to bury power lines there between Muirhead and Bowman roads. The first phase, from Muirhead to Olde Park, was completed for $843,938, and the second phase, from Olde Park to Bowman is underway.

The town also plans to use about $1.3 million to place lines underground along Coleman Boulevard, from Pherigo to Warwick.

Danny Kassis, SCE&G’s vice president of customer relations and renewables, said each project is different and has its own set of obstacles. For instance, the Orange Street work in Charleston was delayed because of difficulty in finding a site for a piece of equipment.

While underground lines are more likely to survive a storm, they can experience other problems, particularly shortly after they’re installed or when their reach the end of their lifespan, Turner said.

Since it often takes more time to repair problems underground, the average outage time per year has been about the same. While overhead wires are subject to more frequent outages, these outages often can be fixed in less time.

“At the end of the day, you probably need to have some overhead and some underground,” Kassis said. “Even overhead becomes beneficial, from the standpoint of resiliency, because it gives you diversity in your sources.”

While very few Lowcountry neighborhoods have seen their telephone poles replaced with underground lines, the utility’s current funding agreements with municipalities allow them to decide which lines they want to see buried first — to address the wheels squeaking the loudest.

“Each has taken a different path,” Kassis said of cities and towns, “but they’ve each achieved a degree of success that they’re proud of.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.