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AmerenUE moves electrical lines underground

Ameren Vice President Richard Mark shows the type of cables that are being put under ground to improve reliability.300 pixels 2008 photo
Provided by AmerenUE | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2008: Even as AmerenUE battled a new round of power outages brought on by weekend storms, the Missouri utility giant continues to ramp up its plan to move more and more of its most vulnerable electrical lines underground.

Richard J. Mark, senior vice president of Missouri Energy Delivery for Ameren, said that by July the utility will reach its peak for "undergrounding" work -- with about 150 projects in various stages of construction. That peak will continue over the next two and a half years, with between 15 and 18 percent of the utility's 1.2 million electric customers eventually affected by the $300 million undergrounding project.

Over the past several weeks, Mark said, increasing numbers of property owners throughout the St. Louis region and much of eastern Missouri have been receiving notice that they are candidates for undergrounding work. Many likely have noticed orange-vested survey teams fanning out into neighborhoods, marking gas lines and making other preparations for moving electric lines beneath ground.

The decision to push such a large undergrounding effort -- part of Ameren's $1 billion "Power On" program -- followed a series of devastating storms two years ago that left tens of thousands of Missourians powerless for several days at a time. Many of the power outages were the result of trees coming down on overhead lines. 

Homeowner Cecil Ketchum of Maryland Heights said his house on Fox Hound Drive was without electricity for more than a week during that summer's storm.

"I lost about $600 worth of meat," he said. "I'd just filled the freezer up a couple of days before. The insurance company wouldn't pay for any of it, said it was an act of God."

Several sections of Maryland Heights have been designated for possible undergrounding work, but Ketchum said he has received no notification that his street will be involved.

Still, he says, he would welcome it.

"I think all the electric ought to go under ground," he said. "I've got a tree laying on a big wire right now, but I'm not getting near it," he said.

While most new developments put electrical lines underground, Mark said that putting all electric lines under ground would be prohibitive. "Power On," a three-year initiative, will ultimately affect a small percentage of all electrical lines, but Ameren says they are very targeted lines, done where they make sense economically and physically. 

"When we look at a project, we look at the number of customers served and the number of outages and weigh that against whether it is feasible to do it here. In some cases, it's not feasible and you have to look at other ways to reduce outages."

Money for the project, Mark said, will come from the utility's operating revenue.

An Ameren spokesman said that while most of the costs will be borne by the utility, customers would have to hire an outside electrical contractor to drop their line, dig a trench and lay conduit to the Ameren line.

An average cost would be about $1,000, he said.

Ultimately, the utility's costs must be passed on to customers.

"The cost of having reliable service, I think, far outweighs the minimal investment in the overall picture. Out customers tell us 'we want reliability,' " Mark said.

Ameren's website includes a map of all of its undergrounding projects, including those that are completed (44 to date), those that are under construction (43) and those that are in the design phase or ready to go into construction (173 total). Click here to visit the site.  Customers can find the map by clicking on Map: Project Locations. Individual geographic areas can be enlarged for better viewing by clicking on the area of interest.

Mark noted that the undergrounding work -- which eventually will involve an estimated 1,100 individual projects in 62 Missouri counties -- will reduce the impact of power outages on the region, but "it won't eliminate all outages.

"All systems, regardless of where you are in the country, will fail at one time or another."

The biggest share of the work will be done in those counties with the most utility customers - St. Louis city and St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson counties.

He noted that some undergrounding projects have been held up by property owner opposition. Much of the problem, he said, has been the unwillingness of residents or business owners to grant easements to the utility.

One project in St. Charles County was nearly canceled recently because of property owners' reluctance to grant easements.

"It can be somewhat frustrating," he said.

Mark said such a program is vital if the utility is to continue to deliver reliable power to its customers.

"People's lifestyles are changing," he said. "More and more people work out of their homes. If they have a blink in power, it affects their business. Our society is becoming so dependent on electric that we've got to invest more to have a system that really meets the needs of our customers."