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Happiness up when lines down low

Taking power underground — could Dominion do it?

For those living in the Lowcountry, tropical weather and flooding are part of the norm. Especially in low-lying cities such as Charleston, the power line infrastructure is susceptible to damage as a result of these storms, both from rain and flooding and from high-speed winds that are capable of bringing down trees. Even the corrosive effects from the salt in the water and the air from the ocean is an issue. When roots fail and trees fall, they often bring down power lines with them, causing power outages and the time and money spent repairing the damage.

Moving power lines underground is ideal for a number of reasons. Not only does it remove the danger of falling tree branches from storms or routine trimmings, but it creates a more aesthetically pleasing look in neighborhoods and helps property values as well. As stated by Jason Crowley, the communities and transportation program director for the Coastal Conservation League, “The process of placing power lines beneath the ground can be extremely beneficial. They help to preserve the environmental and historical aspects of certain areas in the Lowcountry.”

It is instructive to see how challenging the process is. In 1996 when the city of Charleston and South Carolina Electric and Gas Company developed a new approach on how they might start putting more power lines beneath the ground. Through a 1999 ordinance, Article VIII of the Code of the city of Charleston was amended to provide for the designation of Underground Utility Districts for Non-Standard Service. For neighborhoods interested in being designated as an Underground Utility District for Non-Standard Service, a petition must be submitted to the city. The petition must be signed by two-thirds of property owners by assessed real estate value of the real property in the area. These neighborhoods are also required to provide the necessary easements for ground-level equipment. In terms of funding these projects, property owners are asked to cover 15 percent of the total cost, while the city contributes 35 percent, and SCE&G covers the remaining cost.

With a petition approved, neighborhoods are placed on a “Priority List”; once that happens, as described in the ordinance, “The Company (SCE&G) shall be required to commence construction of Non-Standard Service projects within a District within 12 months of it being placed on the Priority List.” Further this service is “subject to the Company’s ability to construct more than one District at a time and subject to the amounts anticipated in the Fund that are reasonably projected to be adequate to cover the costs of the Non-Standard Service projects as they are incurred.” Since the conception of this ordinance, approximately a dozen neighborhoods in the Charleston area have landed on this list, and a few examples of completed projects are located in the neighborhoods of the Crescent, Country Club I and Headquarters Island.

On the peninsular Charleston there are two projects — on Orange Street and in Ansonborough— that have been placed on this “Priority List,” but each has been delayed. As Paul Fischer, Public Affairs Specialist for SCANA, states, “One of the biggest hurdles for any neighborhood or municipality is achieving a consensus from property owners regarding the specifics of exactly where the new equipment, such as transformers and light posts, will be located once the overhead power lines have been removed.” Fischer also went on to say, “A confirmed location for the equipment is critical to moving a project forward. Issues regarding suitable easements can delay a project for months or even years, and even cancel projects entirely.” The Orange Street project has recently been completed, after space was found for a new transformer.

One individual who has been fighting for underground power lines in Ansonborough for a number of years is Lorraine Perry, a licensed and insured property manager who has been a resident of Charleston for more than 25 years. As Perry states, “This is something that we have been fighting for a number of years. Moving the power lines in Ansonborough underground would provide a number of benefits to the area, such as keeping these power lines from disrupting the beauty of many historical Charleston structures.”

The result of moving power lines underground would benefit the entire city of Charleston and its residents in the Ansonborough area because the electric distribution system will be safer and more reliable for an important central commercial, residential and tourist area of the peninsular Charleston; the aesthetic and environmental improvements will enhance pedestrian and tourist traffic as well by improving sidewalk access for all citizens; and the city’s tourist area will be enlarged and enhanced and the attraction of tourism and filmmaking activities will increase in the area.

Around the Lowcountry

The town of Mount Pleasant offers another example. As part of the town’s Proposed Capital Improvement Plan, the Planning and Development Department has made progress through their Utility Underground Project, partnering with SCE&G to begin relocating power lines underground along Mathis Ferry Road in 2013. There are many benefits from this plan, as Christiane Farrell, assistant town administrator and project manager, states, “Undergrounding power lines along Mathis Ferry Road will enable live oaks along Mathis Ferry to grow full canopies without the negative impact of tree trimming maintenance. This supports the goals of the Mathis Ferry Road vegetation management plan.” However, the trees are not the only benefit from this, as Farrell goes on to say, “Placing lines underground also improves service and reliability of electricity during storm events and saves money and time since tree trimming will not be required in the future.”

The first phase of this project covered the area from Muirhead Road to the Olde Park subdivision, at a cost of $843,938, and the second phase of the project continues from Olde Park along Mathis Ferry to Bowman Road. Originally planned on being completed in 2019, the town has extended this project and its budget to 2021, with a total project cost now estimated at over $6 million. Total project funding rests at right around $4 million.

Although there are some neighborhoods in the Lowcountry that have seen progress with putting power lines underground, there are many more neighborhoods to follow that can benefit from this practice. Although there are obvious challenges to widespread understand installation, perhaps Dominion Energy through its buyout of Scana Corp. can truly “ride to the rescue” in a way that ratepayers can appreciate long term.

Although the matter cannot be solved all at one time, one strategy the city of Charleston has been working on for many a year is placing overhead power lines beneath the ground. Why not let incoming Dominion Energy take this to a new level? As local ordinances deal with this issue, the process is enmeshed in neighborhood politics. Could the General Assembly make the process easier?

It so happens that Dominion has made the undergrounding of power lines a priority in at least one of the states it services through its Virginia’s Strategic Underground Program. As described on their website, “Dominion Energy Virginia’s Strategic Underground Program is a system-wide initiative to shorten restoration times following major storms by placing certain outage-prone overhead electric distribution lines and equipment underground.” Although burying power lines may not be at the top of their to-do list, this acquisition could start a new chapter for the state of South Carolina and may provide alternatives to resolving what has been a buried discussion for such an illuminating topic.

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