Austin city council could vote to bury power lines after February storm

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After the February ice storm left millions of damaged trees and hundreds of thousands of Austin residents without power, city officials may continue to bury power lines.

The Austin City Council will consider the measure at its March 23 board meeting. If approved, the city will conduct a feasibility study and develop a long-term plan to prioritize the conversions “for high-priority uses and areas with no new building opportunities.”

Key infrastructure that could receive such updates include:

  • Critical infrastructure such as water, wastewater facilities
  • Health and safety infrastructure, including hospitals and nursing homes
  • Emergency response infrastructure, including police stations, fire departments and emergency medical services
  • Emergency shelter locations, resilience centers
  • Areas with “a history of frequent power outages or high maintenance costs”
  • Consideration of community equity, historically underprivileged communities
  • High fire risk areas
  • Areas with risks to the tree canopy, critical root zones
  • Areas that may impact public areas such as parks

It would also allocate underground lines for future urban projects and look into the construction of underground power lines along major transit corridors, including the Project Connect mass transit system and other roadway improvements.

Austin Energy has more than 7,000 miles of distribution lines buried underground, or 58 percent of the grid’s lines, according to 2021 data.

While the council has expressed interest in burying the lines, it comes at a cost. During an AE press conference in February, AE CEO Jackie Sargent said the venture would cost “billions of dollars.”

RELATED: Why Don’t We Just Bury Power Lines to Stop Winter Outages?

It’s a sentiment shared by Peter Lake, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Texas. Lake said that while it helps prevent power outages from fallen branches, buried lines can also be more difficult to repair.

“Just like anything they have pros and cons,” Lake told KXAN in February. “The main advantage is that when we have ice on the trees and branches fall, if the lines are underground, the outages are less of a problem. The disadvantage of underground power lines is the extraordinary increase in costs”.

While estimates vary, Lake said burying a mile of power lines above ground can cost about $1 million.

“Furthermore, maintaining underground power lines is also challenging,” Lake said. “Instead of having someone in a roadside truck in the bucket working on a power line, you have to dig the road, you have to dig in backyards, which is obviously more disruptive to homes and families.”

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