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City Limits Asks: Why aren't more power lines in Bloomington buried?

tree trim

A crew with the Utilities District of Western Indiana REMC does a maintenance trim on trees. (Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU News)

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American home experienced more than eight hours without power in 2020, which is more than twice what it was half a decade ago.

That led one Bloomington resident to ask City Limits Series why so many power lines are above ground, as electrical lines become increasingly vulnerable to storms and outages. 

And lifelong Bloomington resident Justin Pope has been wondering the same thing. He and his wife have been experiencing regular power outages since they bought their home in the Fritz Terrace neighborhood.

They’ve lived there for four years with their two dogs and a Bearded Dragon. Pope says this year they’ve been lucky and haven’t had any outages, but is worried about when they could return and how frequent they’ve been in the past.

bearded dragon
Pope holds Bearded Dragon, named Pancake. (Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU News)

“But the past three years, four years? Quite a bit, I'd say. At the most, maybe the worst was like 10 a year. And they'd just be so sudden, you know, and sometimes they'd be off for more than 12 hours, I'd say nothing longer than 24. But some pretty long ones.”

He wondered what’s leading to power getting knocked out so easily, in such localized areas.

“Sometimes, it'll just be a little bit of rain or a tiny wind gust, and then it'll just be out, just completely out.”

Pope does suspect that living in an older neighborhood with lots of vegetation does have something to do with it. 

According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the duration of outages in the Indiana increased from 2019 to 2020 but the average number of outages that occurred were down. These are tracked through standards that measure minutes and numbers of outages per customer.

The average person lost power in 2020 for 294 minutes, more than the 266 in 2019. But the average number of outages occurring decreased to 1.31 in 2020 from 1.5 in 2019. 

Bruce Calloway is the government and community relations manager for Duke Energy in South Central Indiana. He said a majority of power outages are vegetation related – like trees and branches interfering with lines and transformers. He added that most power lines in the state are overhead, rather than buried underground. 

“We often get the major causes of our outages are vegetation,” he said.

But, in that case: why not just bury power lines?

“When we look at designing a line, we looked at designing it in the most cost effective way, these costs are borne by all our  customers in the state. That's part of what goes into rates. So, we want to do that in the most cost-effective manner.”

Both he and Doug Childs, the executive officer of the Utilities District of Western Indiana REMC, said burying lines in the southern Indiana is complicated by rocky soil, which Childs says can make installation of underground electric even more expensive.

electric line repair
A crew with the Utilities District of Western Indiana REMC goes to replace a porcelain suspension insulator. (Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU News)

“Locating utilities underground is pretty expensive, and can be, it can be next to impossible in some areas," Childs said. 

Childs agreed with Calloway that most outages in Indiana are caused by vegetation.

“Not not entirely, but probably 75 to 80 percent, are vegetation related. Limbs, trees, those sorts of things falling. So no question that that's a struggle, no question." 

Childs said one way to improve reliability and prevent outages is regular maintenance in areas with trees, and updating infrastructure.

“Now, how you try to minimize that is you do tree trimming. And, you know, that's, that's always something that is, while it's important to do you know, you get an older neighborhood and you know, you're trimming trees are better beautiful, they provide shade, but you have to do it too," Childs said. 

His district is looking at way of modernizing and updating their grid, which includes replacing old porcelain insulators with polymer.

Childs adds older neighborhoods with aging infrastructure will tend to have more outages.

"Most utilities in the country, whether they're investor owned municipals, or EMCS, obviously, we've got a tremendous amount of infrastructure that's getting older every year," Childs said. "So, we've got a lot to do. So, undergrounding is costly, you know, comes down to how many miles can you do in a year?"

Calloway said Duke Energy has also been working to modernize its grid, implementing smart systems that make is easier to detect issues when they occur.

Childs and Calloway say in newer neighborhoods, more lines are buried, and this is often a cost developers choose to incur.

"Our country needs to invest more money into its electric system, do a lot of replacement, a lot of upgrades," Childs said. "There's no cheap way around this. And, you know, and that includes and doing more and more tree trimming."

Indiana ranked eighteenth in the nation for longest power outages in 2019. Maine was the worst, with outages lasting 18 hours on average.

Pope just wants his power to stay on, and is thinking about the ways it affects his family and others.

“I have a lizard and worry about that, if you know, the power goes out, it needs to stay 90 degrees in there for him to live because if it goes below sixty or something, he can die. And I can't imagine you know, having a kid or having a kid that needs to stay hooked up and running at all times or a family member that needs that 

For Duke Energy Indiana, the average number of minutes power was out in 2015 was 211. In 2020, it’s up to 278. The average number of interruptions a customer experienced decreased from 1.27 in 2015 to 1.25 in 2020. 

Indiana energy
Screenshot from Reliability Spreadshoot kept by the US energy Information Administration

President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Plan, which is still being debated lawmakers in the House, includes plans to upgrade the country’s power infrastructure, including by building new transmission lines.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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