Burying Utilities in New Hampshire

2 minute read

We had some friends who had an exchange student from Germany. One day the power went out and he went around the house flipping the light switches, tickled that nothing happened when he did so. He had never experienced a power outage before – in Germany they bury their utility lines.

The Union Leader reports that it would cost $43 billion and take 40 years to bury power lines in New Hampshire. This number doesn’t pass the smell test. The Gross State Product of New Hampshire was $60 billion in 2010, so the cost estimate is 2/3 of the GSP.

Let’s assume each ratepayer (home, business) paid for his own underground service to the next ratepayer (so, you pay for the line from your house to your next door neighbor’s). This would mean the cost-shared amount would be equivalent to 2/3 of the median household income to install a buried line from your house to your neighbor’s house (ignoring the higher incomes of businesses for the sake of easy math, so an overestimate of actual costs) . The 2009 household median income in NH was $61,000 which would put the cost of that cable pull at about $40,000. No way that’s a real number unless somebody’s uncle is getting very rich on the deal. In this kind of massive volume, this should be more like a $4000 project for an average home. Even that seems high – we could install a generator at every home in New Hampshire for that kind of money.

Of course there are corner cases – houses a miles from the road, and long stretches of house-less road, but there are also homes right next to each other in the cities, trailer parks, and dense developments (some of which already have the lines underground) for balance. But even if we ‘only’ had every residential area with buried utilities, that would be a heck of an improvement.

Especially because I’m ignoring all business income here, on an order-of-magnitude scale, $43 billion looks very wrong. If we were to assume a $4000 cost and spread it over 40 years, that could be a rate increase of around $8/mo to get the lines underground. That doesn’t seem so bad, especially since it would restore some of the charm to our idyllic New England towns that has been lost with the tapestry of wires overhead.

I’m assuming the cost of maintenance of the underground facility is no worse than the cost of trimming 2000 miles of trees, buying telephone poles, and repairing fallen wires in storms.  I think this is a reasonable to generous assumption.

As always, correct my math if I’ve erred.