Berlin Weighing Electric Undergrounding Effort

BERLIN — The electric delivery system in Berlin could be going underground in the future, but the timetable will depend on funding availability.

Mayor Gee Williams said funding has not been set aside for the project this year and once the ball does begin to roll the transition will be probably be handled piecemeal over an extended period.

Electric Utility Director Tim Lawrence approached the Town Council with the idea of moving Berlin’s electric network underground during the enterprise fund budget work session Monday night. Because of the extent and the cost of the project, he recommended that the council break it into phases.

“If we had the money, I would certainly like to think about undergrounding the system because once you underground it you’re getting away from the storm issues,” Lawrence said. “So if we could look forward to every year maybe budgeting a little bit of money to underground the system, you’re certainly improving the system.”

Lawrence expanded on the trouble storms cause for the town’s electric grid, reminding the council falling limbs and other symptoms of inclement weather are responsible for most of the town’s outages.

“A lot of the big issues here are the wind and storms, lightening, and once you underground a system you’re kind of getting away from that,” he said. “Plus, aesthetically it looks a whole lot better. You don’t see all of the poles or the power lines.”

Williams agreed that everything that can be done to reduce the frequency and duration of blackouts in town should be a priority.

“What might have been acceptable 25 to 40 years ago in terms of outages, in today’s electronic and digital world, basically everything stops when the electricity does. I think making sure that interruptions are minimized is going to be a fair and reasonable expectation,” he said.

The town has already taken steps toward that goal, the mayor said, and in recent years has measured most blackouts in terms of hours while other towns hit by the same weather event might be without power for days.

“I know that people here get a little upset if we have three or four hours as a worst case scenario, but over there they talk in days. That doesn’t mean we’re off the hook but I think that’s something to keep in mind,” William said.

No money has been set aside in this year’s budget to initiate moving the power network underground, but the council now has the project on its radar.

“It won’t be in this year because it’s not part of this year’s budget but one of the purposes that we definitely encourage at the budget work sessions is to not just think a year at a time,” Williams said.

The mayor called an eventual conversion to an underground grid “a worthy goal,” especially given the likelihood of impactful climate change.

“I do like the idea because conventional wisdom, which is always a little scary, is that the weather is only going to get worse and it’s going to become more extreme,” Williams said.

At this point, Williams believes the council will add the project to its running capital improvements list for the electric utility. Whether money will begin to be set aside by next year’s budget will still have to be decided. Williams couldn’t make any promises, but he said that he expects the town might wait a few years to begin the actual physical undergrounding process though it will probably set aside money well before shovels meet ground.