The Craven-Carteret Electric Cooperative has been using heavy equipment to bury electrical cables underground in some areas, reducing vulnerability to hurricane winds. Baxter Miller / Carolina Public Press

In the wake of hurricanes Matthew and Florence, some North Carolinians suffered power outages lasting up to a week.

With the hurricane season upon us again, Carolina Public Press talked with officials at several electric utilities about what can be done to prevent further outages, especially in terms of underground wiring.

Nearly everyone agreed that the major cause of outages was wind, which does not typically damage underground lines. Despite some challenges with cost and potential problems during flooding, places that have opted for underground lines said the results after storms have been better.

Several also said the buried lines are nicer looking than tall poles and overhead lines.

Workers install buried power lines in Emerald Isle during the winter for Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative. Photo courtesy of Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative.

Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative

In the coastal area served by the Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative, communications director Lisa Galizia said, “We’re about half and half” when it comes to overhead versus underground wiring.

“Early on, there was no such thing as underground wiring in the 1940s,” she said. “Underground is primarily in new developments because of access considerations.”

“We have found that underground may not fail as often due to tree limbs and wrecks,” she continued.

However, “Underground takes much longer to fix,” she added, noting that it is much easier to find and fix problems with overhead wiring.

At the coast, Galizia said, a lot of relatively new divisions at Emerald Isle have underground wiring, along with new development on Highway 58.

As for damage from recent hurricanes, she said, “Most outages were caused by tree limbs and wind … not affecting underground.”

However, with Hurricane Florence, she said, some underground facilities were affected by flooding, but this issue was “very minimal.”

Even where underground lines may be desirable, converting isn’t always a good option, she explained.

To replace overhead with underground wiring is a “daunting task,” she said, noting that wiring has to be routed under driveways and other obstacles.

“It’s easier to start with a clean slate.”

Lumberton Electric Utilities

In Lumberton, which was hard hit by flooding after both storms, Lamar Brayboy, director of electric utilities, said, “The biggest issue is with transmission lines (all of which are overhead). … We couldn’t access some of the downed trees because of flooding.”

“There’s nothing you could do until the water abates,” he continued, noting that some of the transmission lines run through swamps.

As for areas with underground wiring, Brayboy said he had “no issues with underground,” even in flood-prone areas, although there were some blown transformers. “It doesn’t make much difference with flooding, but helps with wind damage,” he added.

A long-standing levee along the Lumber River did its part, according to Brayboy. Instead, “The problem came from where railroad tracks go under I-95,” he said.

“The city is looking into floodgates to correct the situation,” he added.

Carolina Beach weighs options

At Carolina Beach, officials are interested in underground wiring not only for reliability reasons but also because they “want the town to look more appealing,” said Arthur Hughes, chairman of the ad hoc power line committee.

Although Hughes said the committee had been together for only a couple of months and is “in its infancy,” it has “started the process and set goals. … We wish to reduce power outages but also want the community to look nice.”

He said the committee wants to “enhance the appearance of major roads … that feeder lines are still an issue but they are not looking to do the whole community.”

Duke may find targets

Meanwhile, Duke Energy has developed a “targeted underground program,” according to spokesperson Meghan Miles. She said the company uses advanced data to identify areas that are prone to outages.

“While undergrounding lines is a good practice in certain situations, it does not completely eliminate outages and can actually extend restorations when outages occur,” she said.

“During Hurricane Florence, some communities experienced extended outages because flooding prevented crews from being able to access ground-based and underground equipment,” she said. “In addition, placing lines underground can be very expensive and does not always provide significantly better reliability vs. existing overhead lines. That’s why we use advanced data analytics to determine the right spans of line to place underground.”

“As part of our grid improvement initiative, we are working to address critical equipment like substations in flood-prone areas,” Miles said. “We are in the process of building improved barriers and, in some cases, relocating substation equipment currently in areas vulnerable to flooding. In addition, the deployment of self-healing grid technologies is providing new options to automatically detect outages and quickly reroute power when an outage occurs. This technology may provide alternate energy pathways to get power restored in situations when a line repair is needed in a flooded area.”

Miles pointed to the following projects for the Duke’s targeted underground program: along Regency Drive in Winston-Salem, 0.38 miles of overhead lines will be removed, where there have been approximately 20 outage events per mile over 10 years impacting 28 customers; and along Estate Drive in Hendersonville, where 32 customers have been affected by 50 outage events in the past 10 years. She said many customers in this area have purchased generators because of the outages, and some already have commented how their generators have not kicked on since their power was converted to underground over a month ago.

Miles also noted a study after the 2002 ice storm for the N.C. Utilities Commission, which concluded that it would cost $41 billion to convert all overhead wiring to underground statewide, take 25 years to complete, and that the expense would raise everyone’s electric utility rates by 125 percent. She said the results of the study were still relevant.

In general, Miles said that Duke Energy is glad to assist customers, including individuals, developers and communities, but that the customers must bear the cost of converting to underground wiring.

Experience with underground lines in SC

At Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, Palmetto Electric Cooperative is nearing completion of a 10-year process of “converting everything” to underground wiring, said Tray Hunter, vice president of marketing and public relations for the cooperative.

“Transmission is still above ground,” said Hunter, noting there is “significant cost in conversion.”

“It’s beneficial from an aesthetic standpoint,” he continued, noting that underground wiring “cut recovery time drastically after Matthew. … We don’t have to deal with tree damage or limbs on a line.”

“The benefits far outweigh the small issues,” he said.

Hunter said Palmetto partnered with the town of Hilton Head for the underground project and paid for it with franchise fees, using a large portion to bury the cable.

Editor’s note: As originally posted, the section about Duke Energy included out-of-date and incomplete content due to an editing error. The section has now been revised to correct this mistake.

Power infrastructure waiting for installation at the Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative office near Havelock. Baxter Miller / Carolina Public Press

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