Governor signs bill to study the matter
Central Hudson Gas & Electric spends millions of dollars each year trimming branches and removing trees that might bring down power lines during a storm.
With storms occurring with more frequency and intensity, the state Public Service Commission, which regulates electric, gas and telecommunications companies, will soon begin studying another option: moving electric, cable and internet lines, now mounted on poles, underground.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Dec. 29 enacted legislation requiring the commission to study the feasibility and costs for Central Hudson and other utilities to bury power and telecommunications lines and produce a report within 18 months. The legislation was introduced in the Assembly by Jonathan Jacobson, whose district includes Beacon.
The measure passed the Senate, 61-2, with support from Sue Serino, whose district includes the Highlands, and the Assembly, 145-2, with support from Jacobson and Sandy Galef, whose district includes Philipstown.
Jacobson believes the study could be a game-changer. “The more you put it off, the worse it’s going to be,” he said. “You do this, and you do it right, it’s going to save money in the long run.”
The legislator and other proponents cite data compiled by the Public Service Commission that found that over 7½ years, from 2012 to July 2020, utilities in New York state spent more than $2 billion restoring electric, gas and cable and internet services after major storms.
Central Hudson spent $57 million. On Aug. 4, 2020, Tropical Storm Isaias downed 2,538 of its lines and broke 145 poles, leaving 116,000 customers without power, some for days, according the company.
This past fall, Con Edison began work on a $3.2 million pilot project that involves burying 2,200 feet of lines in a neighborhood in Yorktown.
“Even though it’s going to be expensive, in the long run we’re going to save money,” said Jacobson of his proposal. “How much money is lost every time we have an outage? Businesses have to close, schools have to close, people lose goods in their home. Our whole society is based on electricity.”
Central Hudson, which has about 5,200 customers in Philipstown and 6,500 in Beacon, came up with a price tag for burying its 7,900 miles of lines based on a study completed about a decade ago, said Joe Jenkins, a representative of the company: $18 billion.
The utility also calculated the savings: $18 million a year from reduced tree-trimming and storm-related costs, and $10 million from not having to maintain overhead lines. But even with those savings, each customer could see an annual bill increase of $10,000, according to the study.
“It was so much that it would have such a tremendous impact on customer bills,” said Jenkins.
Burying lines, he said, would present other challenges: finding root-free pathways; crossing streams and wetlands; and reconnecting homes and businesses to underground lines rather than overhead ones. Parts of the City of Poughkeepsie, the City of Newburgh and Kingston have underground systems, he noted.
“While the frequency of outages would probably be a little bit less, duration of outages would probably be longer because it would take a little longer to identify the problem — find it, dig it up, fix it,” said Jenkins. He added that Central Hudson is onboard with the study “as long as it takes the proper costs” into account.
In addition to the costs for companies, the Public Service Commission is required to calculate the monthly cost to each utility customer based on the statewide price tag, not just the expense for the company in their service area. The idea is to have each customer share the total cost, said Jacobson.
For people living in rural parts of the state, where populations are small and spread out, “the cost per-person would be prohibitive,” he said.
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