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Should Michigan bury its electric power lines underground?

A downed wire in Ann Arbor
Alexander Clayton
Michigan Radio
A downed wire in Ann Arbor, following Wednesday's ice storms. Hundreds of thousands of homes have remained without power for days.

With tens of thousands of Michiganders waiting to have their electricity restored this weekend, some people are wondering why power lines aren’t buried in the ground.

The number one reason why electricity in Michigan is generally carried in wires suspended in the air is cost.

“Undergrounding is many times more expensive than installing and maintaining above ground lines,” said Greg Salisbury, Consumers Energy’s Vice President of Electric Distribution Engineering.

A DTE official says it costs three times as much to bury power lines than it is to suspend them from utility poles.

A DTE official adds excavating and installing underground power lines in existing communities would take an environmental toll.

Trevor Lauer is DTE’s president. He said it costs utilities about the same to maintain underground lines as it does to maintain suspended lines.

“I recognize that underground doesn’t have the number of outages that overhead has,” said Lauer, “But when you have an underground outage it tends to last a lot longer than overhead outages.”

However, both utilities are exploring plans for burying more electric lines in the future. For example, expanding underground lines is part of Consumers Energy’s five-year $5 billion infrastructure plan.

Though that may be cold comfort for those waiting to have their power restored from Wednesday’s ice storm.

Editor's note: DTE Energy and Consumers Energy are both financial sponsors of Michigan Radio.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.