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Alabama Power putting some overhead power lines underground for greater reliability, long-term savings

A two-year project to upgrade Alabama Power’s electric system in a Birmingham-area neighborhood promises to strengthen reliability for area customers while lowering maintenance costs over the long run – for the broader benefit of all Alabama Power customers.

Construction on the project, in the Green Valley neighborhood of Hoover, finished this summer. It involved installing about 33,000 linear feet of new underground cable to serve more than 100 customers. Once the underground system was installed, the company removed a decades-old overhead system that had become increasingly difficult to maintain, and even more challenging to access and repair after storms.

Fencing and large trees in the Green Valley community made it increasingly difficult to maintain overhead power lines. (Billy Brown / Alabama NewsCenter)

Justin Harrison, a manager in the company’s Power Delivery-Central Engineering organization, said the overhead system was first installed in the 1960s when the neighborhood was being developed. But over the years, the rear-lot network of poles and transformers built along a creek became more difficult to reach as homeowners constructed fences, added landscaping and planted trees that have grown large.

The company conducted a detailed analysis and determined that replacing the difficult-to-reach overhead lines by installing more accessible underground ones would improve reliability while reducing costs over the life of the system, Harrison said.

Heavy vegetation along a creek made overhead line maintenance a challenge. (Billy Brown / Alabama NewsCenter)

“Over the years, the costs to maintain overhead equipment, the costs of tree-trimming and vegetation removal, have been going up. So have the costs for storm restoration,” Harrison said. At the same time, he noted, the technology and reliability related to underground networks have improved.

Replacing the overhead system in the Green Valley area, where access challenges made storm restoration, vegetation management and cleanup difficult and costly, will reduce costs over time – costs that all Alabama Power customers share.

Harrison said the company worked closely with customers in the neighborhood to explain the project and gain their approval. In the case of a future major storm and outages in the neighborhood, restoration should be faster and less complicated, which means workers can be freed up sooner to address storm damage elsewhere.

“This was not done for aesthetics,” Harrison emphasized. “This was done to improve reliability and drive down costs.”

Alabama Power’s Jonathan Bowen, with Power Delivery-Central Engineering, holds a splice used to repair downed overhead lines. With underground lines, the splices aren’t needed. (Billy Bowen / Alabama NewsCenter)

Harrison said the company is using data analytics to examine locations around the state where switching from overhead to underground lines may make sense – both financially and for the dependability of electric service. Many other investor-owned utilities are doing the same kinds of analyses and undertaking projects where there are clear benefits, he said.

Alabama Power’s undergrounding initiative began in earnest in 2021 and picked up speed this year. To date, the company has completed more than 80 projects. Another 29 are under construction, and 34 more are “construction-ready” with engineering completed, Harrison said. The company is conducting engineering work on an additional 360 potential projects around the state.

Adam Carr, Alabama Power Grid Investment manager, and Team Leader Wayne Garner coordinate construction of underground lines and removal of overhead lines. The work is accomplished with a mix of company and contract workers. A significant portion of the contracted work is performed by minority- and women-owned businesses.

Scott Moore, Alabama Power senior vice president for Power Delivery, said: “Ensuring electric service for our customers is safe, extremely dependable and affordable are top priorities for us, especially with costs rising for almost everything out there, from food to housing, to gasoline.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to keep our reliability high, minimize restoration times and drive down costs,” Moore added. “Transitioning from overhead to underground in some locations is often one of the more viable next-step solutions, but the analytics and evaluation of the analysis has to show it.”

To learn more about how Alabama Power is exploring the installation of underground lines in some areas to enhance customer service and reliability while reducing long-term costs, click here.

Trenching work to install underground lines. Studies show underground lines can strengthen reliability and lower costs in some locations. (contributed)