Snowstorm 2019: The Facts & FAQs

Following is the second in a series of articles related to the devastating snowstorm in late February that caused significant outages throughout the Lane Electric Cooperative service territory. It answers common member questions and provides information for future preparedness.

By Lindsey McCarthy

Why don’t you underground the lines so this doesn’t happen again?

Serviceman Kevin Bradley,
Kevin Bradley, who worked mainly in Oakridge during the snowstorm outage restoration, was recently awarded a serviceman position and is assigned to work in the Oakridge District. Congratulations, Kevin! He’s pictured here on Highway 58 when it was closed to only emergency and utility vehicles. He was scoping the site where undergrounding occurred. The poles and wire were moved from behind him up in the trees to the other side of the highway, where they are now more accessible.

While undergrounding the entire system would, in theory, reduce tree-caused outages, there are many reasons why we cannot do that. The first is cost.

When we ran the numbers after the 2016 ice storm, undergrounding all 675 miles of overhead wire would increase each members’ monthly bill by $73.75 for approximately 30 years. We are crunching the numbers again, but it’s likely that number is higher, three years later, with increased costs of labor and materials.

There are other reasons, including regulatory rules and restrictions, prohibitive geography, environmental concerns and differing member opinions.
Not everyone agrees with undergrounding the lines.

Lastly, undergrounding isn’t a cure-all solution for reducing outages. If we were to experience a flood or an earthquake, lines underground lines may not be saved from destruction.

That said, we continuously analyze areas of our system that would benefit from undergrounding lines. When it is cost effective and feasible, we budget for that investment in our infrastructure.

As part of the restoration efforts after this snowstorm, we completed an undergrounding project along Highway 58 instead of repairing the damaged
lines above the highway in the trees. This was a capital project we budgeted to do this calendar year anyway, so our engineering team activated the plan with contractors to get it done sooner than planned.

We will continue to analyze areas of our system in a similar fashion and, when it makes sense, underground portions of line.

How much does all this restoration work cost, and who is paying for it?

At press time, we were still calculating the total cost of LEC’s historic restoration work, but our estimate is nearly $6 million. Following the snowstorm, the governor’s State of Emergency for Lane County opened the door for Federal Emergency Management Agency funding. We can’t imagine why that wouldn’t be approved. FEMA funds were approved for damage done during the 2016 ice storm—which cost LEC $2 million—but the federal government has up to a year to decide.

Our accounting department has submitted our estimate to the state, which will make the request of the White House for FEMA assistance.

For any amount not covered by FEMA, the co-op would borrow from our lender and members would re-pay that amount through their rates over a period of up to 30 years. We will attempt to get as much federal funding as possible to limit the impact on our members.

NEXT ISSUE: More disaster preparedness information.