Electrification, Energy + Environment, Lighting Industry

What Happens When Powerlines Go Underground And Telephone Lines Are Turned Off?

Power, telephone and cable lines on poles are expected to go underground.

What happens when the impacts of electrification collide with the obsolescence of telecommunications infrastructure? We’re all going to find out. Last week, I learned of two seemingly unrelated things:

  1. Undergrounding Powerlines

Electrification of buildings and transportation raise the stakes for grid reliability / resiliency. Historically, power outages take out lighting, appliances, and HVAC systems. We’re rapidly moving to a future where a power outtage will also shut down hot water, cooking appliances, and transportation. This will likely impact both residential and commercial buildings. Most power outages are caused by storms and downed trees damaging powerlines.

The US DOE’s ARPA-E program has just announced a $40 Million program to develop cost-effective, high-speed, and safe undergrounding technologies to strengthen electrical system reliability for distribution grids by undergrounding electric power lines in urban and suburban areas.

“We know that by undergrounding our grid, we can create a more resilient and reliable U.S. power grid. But right now, we need to develop the solutions to make the process safer and more cost-effective,” said ARPA-E Director Evelyn N. Wang. “ARPA-E’s new GOPHURRS program wants to tackle this problem by developing new technologies that allow for reducing costs, increasing speed, and improving the reliability and safety of undergrounding the grid.”

  1. The End Of Land Line Telephones

The FCC has given the telecom companies authorization to abandon the copper line network of telephone cables [aka “plain old telephone service, (POTS)” aka land lines]. This process is referred to by the telecom industry as the “Copper Line Sunset.”

Newer technology such as cellular networks and voice over internal protocol (VolP) phone service have made the POTS infrastructure obsolete. In 2019, the FCC gave telecommunications carriers permission to phase out their copper wire lines, and as a result, land line infrastructure is going away, becoming more expensive, and the quality of service is getting worse.

While undergrounding electric lines and abandoning copper telephone lines seem unrelated, it occurred to me that both legacy infrastructures reside primarily on utility poles. Some questions result that could impact the lighting industry:

  • If power and telephone lines leave utility poles, what incentive will there be to maintain the utility pole network? Electric utilities will no longer want the expense. Telecoms might care for existing cable network lines, but those are partially above ground and in many cases already underground.
  • If utilities and telecoms abandon the utility pole network, what becomes of urban and suburban street lights? Will it fall to municipalities to maintain a fraction of utility poles for street lights? Who will replace street light poles when they’re hit by a car or knocked down by a storm?
  • Will new streetlight infrastructure evolve if utility poles are abandoned? In parts of Europe, it’s common to hang street lights from wire cables tied between buildings. This is known as “Catenary Street Lighting.” We see this approach commonly used in the US for traffic signal lights that are cable suspended.
  • Some experts are already predicting significant reductions in street lighting as autonomous vehicles gain adoption. Advanced sensors in autonomous vehicles, such as LiDAR don’t require visible light for sensing and navigation. Will this result in electric lines, telephone lines, and street lights all being removed from poles?
  • Will 5G cellular networks become dominant users of utility poles?

I have not found a single article online that addresses this set of questions. Do you have thoughts on this? Please share your opinion in the comment section below.

Example of catenary street light. Image: www.lighting.philips.com

Example of catenary street light. Image: www.lighting.philips.com

Top Image: Pixabay.com

  • James Benya April 13, 2023, 1:45 PM

    Hi, David. Since a lot of my work in the last decade has involved street lighting and infrastructure, I’d like to try to answer your questions. First, undergrounding power could and should include undergrounding data lines. The data lines can receive periodic power injection for routers and switches, keeping in mind that fiberoptic cables are faster and more reliable than wireless communications is fast. Underground power and signal also protects against weather and human damage and both are (for now) probably more resilient. The portion of Davis in which we live was built this way in the 1960’s and in general it has proven to be reliable. When we lose power it is almost always due to weather at a particular substation where aerial lines are transformed and distributed underground. Land lines are still available here as part of the underground system but most of us employ cable internet service that offers landline service if you want it. Internet speed is very good and managing the entire system appears to be relatively easy. Relying on cellular is a bad idea if you have the ability to have wires and fiber. As for street lighting, we are designing today for IES RP-8 and street lighting will continue to require the same infrastructure as today. The dream of street lighting poles providing Wi-Fi and various so-called “smart city” sensors and functions requires adding a data network of fiberoptic cables to each smart pole, or alternately, equipping each so-called smart pole with a 5G data modem. This may require a new power source for each so-equipped pole as the load of the non-lighting functions should be on a separate system and be adequate for the processor(s), cameras and communication devices. These ideas have been in motion for well over a decade but the investment in infrastructure costs tends to bring dreamers back to reality. As for catenary lights, getting cooperation and permission from building owners, getting separate power paid for by the municipality and then addressing the responsibility for damage to every building to which lights are attached are major obstacles. Besides, the light poles are there already, not to mention that catenary lights are subject to wind and weather damage. In short, all these ideas sound good at first, but present obstacles to their implementation. I say, going underground is a good idea, and leave cellular antenna issues to the cellular providers and the community.

    • David Shiller April 18, 2023, 9:00 PM

      Jim, thanks for sharing your expertise, as always.


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