How realistic is the idea to bury Austin’s power lines? Council wants to know.

Photo by Austin Energy

Friday, March 24, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

At its regular meeting Thursday, City Council approved a pair of items aimed at exploring the possibilities for burying existing utility power lines as well as ones to be constructed in new capital projects such as Project Connect.

The idea surfaced after the devastating February winter ice storm that left thousands of Austinites without power for days. Austin Energy attributed the outages to an unprecedented amount of ice that accumulated on lines and downed trees and utility poles.

Item 84, sponsored by Council Member Ryan Alter, directs the city manager to conduct a feasibility study on the idea of burying existing power lines, and then to develop a long-term capital improvement plan for doing so. The resolution requests that the city manager develop a plan to prioritize potential areas to bury lines, such as near critical infrastructure, medical centers and emergency response infrastructure.

The resolution asks the city manager to define which areas aren’t compatible with such underground utility infrastructure, review current best practices among other cities, and estimate costs and potential funding sources. The city manager will also look into possible amendments to the Land Development Code that could promote installation in the future.

A third version of the resolution included an acknowledgement of the roles that trees play in mitigating urban heat, improving the safety and walkability of city streets and enhancing cleanliness of air and water. “Overhead electric distribution lines frequently create conflicts for the growth and health of these vital pieces of green infrastructure,” it states. Therefore, the manager is also directed to consider opportunities to coordinate the work with the planting of new trees along streets, particularly along corridors of high pedestrian use.

Item 58, sponsored by Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, directs the city manager to encourage coordination between city departments regarding the placement of underground lines in the development of future capital projects. The resolution asks the city manager to “identify opportunities for improvement to ensure that the potential for underground placement is thoroughly considered.”

Both resolutions ask the city manager to report back on progress related to these efforts at the Electric Utility Commission and the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee within 180 days, which would be in September.

Fuentes thanked her colleagues for the support, and emphasized the importance of the measures in Austin’s overall quest to increase emergency preparedness.

“This pair of policy items before us is that next step in the process for us to explore ways of how we can bury our power lines,” Fuentes said.

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This article First appeared in austinmonitor

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