After the storm outages, can more of Houston’s power grid go underground? (2024)

HOUSTON – Five days after a storm rummaged several neighborhoods in Houston, thousands are still dealing with the aftermath.

More than 100,000 Houstonians were still without power because of a storm last Thursday. The next day, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it could take weeks for the power to be restored in some Houston area neighborhoods.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire brought in outside workers to assist with the load of getting everyone back online but the help just isn’t enough.

Restoring power in Houston has been difficult because it’s not just that the overhead utility poles were damaged or destroyed, but also the overhead connections between the utility pole-bound transformers, adding complexity to the heavily damaged homes and businesses as well.

So, many are posing the question. Could more of the power grid be buried underground to possibly prevent situations like this from happening in the future? According to CenterPoint, in the Houston area, there are currently 21,763 miles of underground distribution lines and 26 miles of underground transmission lines -- which is a huge chunk of the city.

Losing power is something Houstonians are privy to. In 2021, much of central Texas experienced a devastating winter storm, which left a similar effect - thousands without working electricity for weeks.

In one of our neighboring states, Florida, since Hurricane Irma in 2017, the state has since taken its power grid underground. However, putting the power grid underground wouldn’t prevent every blackout, according to experts.

“It’s simple to draw a conclusion that if we have an overhead power line, whether it be a distribution circuit in your neighborhood or whether it be a transmission line, that if we just put it underground, that would solve all the problems, right? That’s the common urban understanding. The problem with that or several is that anything that’s electrical, that’s a transmission or a distribution circuit can be put underground. The ones in your neighborhood and the older neighborhoods of Houston are distribution circuits that take the power to the houses. Often the new subdivisions are underground, right? But the costs of that are often paid by the subdivision owner. And so, if you take an existing distribution system, for example, in a residential area and want to put it underground, there are multiple problems, including notwithstanding the simple cost, cost of putting something that exists overhead, tearing down that infrastructure, and putting it underground. So cost is very substantial for distribution circuits. However, transmission circuits, are extraordinarily expensive, far more so than than the ones behind your house,” said Don Russell, an engineer who teaches at Texas A&M.

So, what’s the issue?

The cost.

Burying power lines is particularly challenging in densely developed areas due to the intricate network of existing infrastructure, including internet cables, sewer pipes, and natural gas lines. Additionally, floodplains present a significant obstacle because electricity and water are incompatible.

The estimated cost is in the billions, according to researchers.

In 2023, the former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, Peter Lake, said the two biggest reasons why more cities don’t use underground power lines were the increased cost and the difficulties repairing them.

“Just like anything they come with pros and cons,” Lake told KXAN in 2023. “The primary benefit is that when we have ice on trees and branches are falling, if the lines are underground, then outages are less of an issue. The downside of underground power lines is the extraordinary increase in cost.”

After the winter storm in Texas, Austin, the state’s capital considered burying power lines but said it ran into several obstacles, including the cost.

According to Lake, underground lines cost roughly $1 million per mile.

“In addition, maintenance on underground power lines is also challenging,” Lake told KXAN in 2023. “Instead of having somebody in a truck on the side of the road up in the bucket work in a powerline, you’ve got to dig up the street, you got to dig up yards, which of course is more disruptive to homes and families.”

When a 2002 snowstorm left millions of customers in North Carolina without electricity, a disaster preparedness task force studied the option of undergrounding the state’s entire power distribution system but found that it would take a quarter century and cost an estimated $41 billion, according to an article written by CNN.

Also, since Houston is prone to flooding at times, underground lines may pose a different obstacle. Entergy Corporation, which provides power services to Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi said subsurface flooding can damage underground powerlines, and repairs could take longer since the problem areas would require more work and underground digging.

We’ve gotten a lot of questions from viewers about why more power lines aren’t underground. Drop a comment and let us know your thoughts.

Copyright 2024 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.

After the storm outages, can more of Houston’s power grid go underground? (2024)


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