After Sandy: Why Burying the Power Lines Is a Lonely Fight

Power companies have concluded that burying lines is too expensive to contemplate. Maybe they aren't thinking about things the right way. Here's one man who's taking on the fight.

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Andrew Quilty / Oculi for TIME

A view of Route 35 through Mantoloking, NJ in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy Oct 31, 2012.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we’re certain to hear all kinds of ideas about how to improve the nation’s woeful power grid. Millions of people on the East Coast lost electricity, and utilities crews took far too long to turn the lights back on.

Heads are rolling at the Long Island Power Authority. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is saying we need to do something about our basic power infrastructure. The New York Times reports that the power grid is vulnerable not just to severe weather but to terrorist attacks as well.

Stephen Langenthal has seen and heard it all before. A retired lawyer in Manhattan, he’s been trying to get power companies to bury the lines for years. “After a big event, this is all people want to talk about,” he says of outages like those Sandy caused. “But after two or three weeks, when everyone has power again they resume their lives and nothing gets done. This time, I’d like to keep the issue from fading.”

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Langenthal has two initiatives. Last year, he founded Power Underground, a nonprofit that promotes burying lines and is trying to raise money for an-depth study of the costs and benefits. More recently, he’s been trying to raise money on Kickstarter to produce a Roger & Me type documentary featuring power company executives and industry experts exploring why nothing seems to get done.

He’s finding it lonely out there. “I get 100 or 200 visits to my website everyday,” Langenthal says. “But no one gives, not even a few dollars. It’s weird. It really makes no sense.” Additionally, he’s been unable to find any group with the central mission of burying power lines. Some environmental organizations are on board, mainly to save trees. But Power Underground, with its staff of one, seems to be in this fight alone.

After interviewing Langenthal, 78, I’m convinced he’s for real. He is sharp and determined. “ I may be retired,” he says. “But I’d be delighted to take this on full-time and do something good for the country.” He’s done a lot of research and has MIT cued up to undertake an economic impact study. But he needs $70,000 to get it going. Langenthal is convinced that such a study would reveal economic benefits to burying the lines, including job creation, a boost to manufacturing, more dependable and secure power supplies and even a more aesthetically pleasing view of historic districts that might boost tourism.

Burying lines isn’t cheap. A 2009 Edison Electric Institute study put the cost at $1 million per mile. Yet that is largely due to the high cost of converting existing lines. A 2010 report by Shaw Consultants for the District of Columbia concluded:

“The Commission should consider undergrounding in specific situations, such as a pairing of undergrounding with road expansion efforts…or neighborhood projects in which the electric distribution undergrounding could be completed as part of a greater effort involving roadway reconstruction or large scale water and sewer replacement. By bundling infrastructure investment in this manner, sufficient benefits may accrue to justify the level of undergrounding investment.”

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In other words, let’s start by burying the lines in new construction sites and where other projects can defray part of the expense. This approach might chop the cost in half, Langenthal believes. But for now he’s just hoping we’ll still be talking about the issue in two or three weeks–after  everyone’s power has been restored and they’ve gone back to their normal life.