AUSTIN (KXAN) — After the February ice storm led to millions of damaged trees and hundreds of thousands of Austinites without power, city officials could pursue burying power lines.

Austin City Council will consider the measure at its March 23 council meeting. If approved, the city will conduct a feasibility study and develop a long-term plan to prioritize the conversions “for high-priority uses and areas without new construction opportunities.”

Key infrastructures that could receive those upgrades include:

  • Critical infrastructure such as water, wastewater facilities
  • Health and safety infrastructure, including hospitals and nursing homes
  • Emergency response infrastructure, including police, fire and emergency medical service stations
  • Emergency shelter locations, resilience hubs
  • Areas with “a history of frequent electric service disruption or high maintenance cost”
  • Consideration of community equity, historically underserved communities
  • High wildfire risk areas
  • Areas with tree canopy risks, critical root zones
  • Areas that can impact public areas like parkland

It would also earmark underground lines for future city projects as well as look into underground power line constructions along major transit corridors, including the Project Connect mass transit system and other roadway improvements.

“We need to increase resilience as a city for our electrical grid,” Council Member Ryan Alter, who brought the proposal forward, said. “I don’t foresee us as a city burying all our power lines. It’s just something that’s not practical and probably not cost effective, but there are areas where we should probably convert those lines from overhead to underground.”

Austin Energy has more than 7,000 miles of distribution lines buried underground, or 58% of the network’s lines, as of 2021 figures. There are still more than 5,000 miles of line above ground, according to Austin Energy.

While the council has expressed interest in burying lines, it does come at a cost. During a February AE press conference, AE General Manager Jackie Sargent said the endeavor would cost “billions of dollars.”

Austin Energy is also doing a feasibility study right now that would look at the cost of burying all the lines, Sargent said in February.

“We’ve always responded that burying our distribution lines would be prohibitively expensive and very disruptive. We as a utility know this intuitively but the community may not,” she said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Peter Lake, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Texas. Lake said while it helps prevent power disruptions from fallen branches, buried lines can also be more difficult to repair.

“Just like anything they come with pros and cons,” Lake told KXAN in February. “The primary benefit is that when we have ice on trees and branches are falling, if the lines are underground, then outages are less of an issue. The downside of underground power lines is the extraordinary increase in cost.”

While estimates vary, Lake said burying one mile’s worth of above-ground power lines can cost approximately $1 million.

“In addition, maintenance on underground power lines is also challenging,” Lake said. “Instead of having somebody in a truck on the side of the road up in the bucket work in a powerline, you’ve got to dig up the street, you got to dig up yards, which of course is more disruptive to homes and families.”

But Alter said he wants more specifics. Instead of looking to bury all the lines, he wants to be able to pinpoint areas that make sense and to look at ways to make sure any new lines go underground.

“It doesn’t have to be all at once and more importantly, we need to put rules in place now so that future development buries those power lines and so that we’re really focused on converting existing infrastructure and not having to worry about future infrastructure,” he said.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes is also introducing an item that would look at burying lines during city-funded projects like Project Connect.

Emergency generators at fire/EMS stations

Council could also direct the city manager to take inventory of emergency generators at all EMS and fire stations in the city.

According to the resolution, several Austin Fire Department and EMS stations lost power during last month’s storm.

“Several AFD and EMS stations lost power… did not have access to operational back-up generators, depriving on-duty first responders access to warmth and light,” the proposal notes.

“We need to make sure they can charge their cell phones, we have to make sure they can take hot showers, have communications equipment functioning. In wildfire, extreme cold, icy conditions. Anything that Texas weather is going throw at us, we want to make sure that our fire and EMS stations are well taken care of,” Council Member Paige Ellis, who authored the resolution, said.

The item, if passed, would direct the city manager to do an inventory of generators and bring a report back to the council by no later than July 1.