Cover Story: Burying power lines

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte's power struggle.  Sometimes when storms strike some get left in the dark.  A pilot program for the Queen City could help us step in the light.  Duke Energy is looking for cities it can split the costs with 50-50 and bury some power lines in a pilot project the state's going to be watching closely.  PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson has a look in our Cover Story.

Charlotte is competing with 17 other cities.. and Monday night the City Council is hearing what the city will do if it's selected.

It was a terrible ice storm in 2002 that crippled the Carolinas and left 2 million without power in the dead of winter.. that got people asking what could be done to keep this from happening again.

Bury the power lines.. emerged.

But the North Carolina Utilities Commission.. which regulates public utilities in the state.. concluded in 2002 it would cost 41-billion dollars.. take 25 years to complete.. and increase customers' bills 125-percent.

This year, a pilot project was ordered.. and Duke Energy is looking for three cities willing to share in the costs of buying some of the power lines in selected neighborhoods.

Tim Pettit with Duke.  He says, "Duke's interest is in studying this to see how we might be able to do some conversions on a larger scale."

Charlotte's identified at least two corridors it'd like to convert.

Trade Street/Beatties Ford Road from I-77 to Brookshire Boulevard.  Basically From Johnson and Wales University past Johnson C. Smith University.

And North Tryon Street between Dalton Avenue and 30th Street.

Hamid Lamnadi owns Wireless Market on North Tryon.  Originally from Morocco on the coast of North Africa.. he noticed Charlotte's overhead power lines right away.

In his native land.. in cities.. the power lines are underground.

He says it'd be a welcome improvement to the front of his store.  "We need it for all Charlotte. Creates more problems.. especially storms we need to repair. Save a lot of money for the city."

But while taking power lines and burying them.. might seem simple to do.. it isn't.

Streets.. sidewalks and trees.. risk being torn up.  You have to work around other underground utilities.. like sewer and water lines.  And provisions have to be made for telephone and cable TV lines that share utility poles.

All of which drives costs up.. which is why it hasn't been done on a large scale before now.

Duke's priority-- burying lines at high risk of outages.

"Not for asthetic purposes but one where reliability and safety can come into play and where there's a potential to have some reduced operaing and maintenance costs," says Duke Energy's Tim Pettit.

Burying power lines doesn't eliminate outages completely.. a line feeding the underground line can go down resulting in a power outage.

If Charlotte's selected.. it'll be a three-year pilot project with Duke.  Each would spend four and a half million dollars a year.. converting selected neighborhoods in the city

Charlotte should find out if it's selected within the next month.

Duke Energy says it has 15,000 miles of underground power lines in the Carolinas.. including most of Center City Charlotte.  Eighty percent of its newest lines are buried.