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

author avatar
David Shiller
David Shiller is the Publisher of LightNOW, and President of Lighting Solution Development, a North American consulting firm providing business development services to advanced lighting manufacturers. The ALA awarded David the Pillar of the Industry Award. David has co-chaired ALA’s Engineering Committee since 2010. David established MaxLite’s OEM component sales into a multi-million dollar division. He invented GU24 lamps while leading ENERGY STAR lighting programs for the US EPA. David has been published in leading lighting publications, including LD+A, enLIGHTenment Magazine, LEDs Magazine, and more.


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