We've said it before and we'll say it again: A concerted effort has to be made to bury utility wires.
With warnings of more extreme weather due to climate change, storms like last week's brutal nor'easter may become more common. Tens of thousands of Cape Codders and Southeastern Massachusetts residents spent days without power after winds of hurricane force or greater downed trees and branches, which in turn pulled down electric and other utility wires, blacking out almost all of Orleans and three-quarters of Chatham and Harwich. Some didn't get electricity back until Saturday. Luckily, it wasn't deep winter so there was little concern about cold, but an untold amount of food was spoiled and many businesses had to close due to the lack of power.
Aside from the inconvenience – which was extreme if you were among those who went four days without power – there's a price for the loss of economic activity. And then there's the cost to local towns for DPW crews clearing trees from wires, firefighters responding to emergency calls such as alarms when power goes on and off, and police making sure roadways are safe. Finally, 1,600 line and tree crews worked throughout the week, many of them brought in from off Cape. Let's be clear: they did a great job, working around the clock to restore storm-damaged infrastructure. Eversource was efficient in direct resources where they were most needed. But the point is, had utility wires been underground, that wouldn't have been necessary.
We realize the cost of burying utility wires is enormous. But what has been the cost in lost economic activity, increased electrical rates to cover repairs and restoration, and expenses for residents from storms knocking out power over the last 10, 20, 30 years? Not to mention that it would make winter storms less threatening, and potentially deadly, for the area's elderly population. It puts the estimate of $1 million per mile to place utilities underground in context. Yes, there may still be infrastructure above ground vulnerable to disruption due to weather, but most of the power outages are at the neighborhood level and are caused by trees and branches taking out power lines. Getting wires underground along the region's residential streets would go a long way to reducing the impact of storms. We won't even get into the improvements it would make in the visual environment. Would residents and businesses be willing to pay a small surcharge for these benefits?
This effort needs to be promoted at the regional level by the Cape Cod Commission and county government. Local officials who are responsible for approving utility pole locations can also put pressure on Eversource and Comcast to move in this direction. It would take years, maybe even decades, but short-term thinking has got us where we are with climate change. It's time to build some resiliency into the power grid for the future.