Lawmakers weigh costs of outages, and buried power lines

New, thicker, taller light poles along the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road are the focus of a hearing before the Martha's Vineyard Commission. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

State public utility officials would devise regulations and create incentives for utility companies to bury infrastructure so power grids are less susceptible to outages during storms, under legislation being considered by lawmakers.

The legislation is expected to be of interest to Martha’s Vineyard officials in light of the uproar over new utility poles NSTAR erected on major Island roadways.

Rep. Christopher Walsh, a Framingham Democrat, said Tuesday he wants to start a conversation about designing and planning underground systems, and proposed a bill (H 2989) that would require the Department of Public Utilities to promulgate regulations for utilities to “shield” infrastructure to minimize power interruptions.

Utility companies should develop infrastructure that is “hardened” so it will not go down several times each winter, Mr. Walsh told lawmakers on the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee.

“We need to have a conversation about what we want out of a grid,” Mr. Walsh said during a legislative hearing.

Under the legislation, the department “shall make it a priority to create incentives for unobtrusive, hardened, shielded, underground electrical utility transmission and distribution systems wherever physically feasible.”

Some lawmakers on the committee expressed concern about the costs.

“The problem with that is there is a great cost associated with that,” said Rep. Jennifer Benson, a Democrat from Lunenburg.

Ms. Benson, a member of the committee, said she did not want to see costs transferred to “already overburdened ratepayers.”

Mr. Walsh said the cost of losing electricity is also significant, causing people to miss work and lose money. He called the power outages an “embarrassment” to Massachusetts since it is considered a technology hub.

“Not only can we afford to do, but we must afford to do if we are going to stay a leader in the high tech world,” he said.

The Department of Public Utilities is looking into ways to modernize the electric grid, according to a spokeswoman.

A spokesperson for National Grid did not return a phone call seeking comment.

During the blizzard of 2013 in February, tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents were without power for days after trees brought down power lines. Long after the snow stopped falling and customers were still in the dark, lawmakers said they wanted answers from utility companies about the prolonged outages, and what was being done to prevent them.

While touring blizzard damage on the South Shore, Gov. Deval Patrick suggested that utility companies do a cost analysis of burying infrastructure.

“It’s the power of the storms and it’s the fact that many of our wires are above ground,” Mr. Patrick said. “I am personally very interested in seeing a real analysis done by the utilities of what it would cost to bury utilities underground. I know it’s expensive but I have to believe that the cost of recovery, the disruption to people’s personal and work lives over time, and given the increased frequency of storms of this severity, which is something that meteorologists are telling us to get used to, seems to me to weigh in that balance. I’d be very interested to see the utilities do that.”

After Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Benjamin Downing, (D-Pittsfield), co-chair of the committee, said lawmakers have “still got some homework to do” on the idea.

He said stakeholders discussing it are looking at whether it is possible to phase in underground construction or target specific areas that are prone to outages.

This summer, federal officials forecast an above-normal hurricane season for this year.

The federal government released a report in August estimating weather-related power outages cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion.

An aging power grid, the report said, “has made Americans more susceptible to outages caused by severe weather.”

Lawmakers also heard testimony on legislation that would require gas stations to be equipped with emergency backup power systems (H 2939), filed by Rep. William Galvin (D-Canton).

Stephen Dodge, from the Massachusetts Petroleum Council, said generators can cost $60,000. He said it would be a “huge financial burden” for gas station owners, adding most stations are not owned by big oil companies.