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Oconomowoc says it avoided power outages due to investment in underground utility lines

Posted at 6:04 PM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 19:56:56-04

OCONOMOWOC — Tens of thousands of people in southeastern Wisconsin spent Thursday without power after overnight storms downed trees and overhead power lines.

Dozens of We Energies crews were out in the hardest hit areas replacing downed utility lines and poles.

Oconomowoc’s utility manager says they paid a premium years ago to have their power lines buried in the ground. The city says because of that investment, they avoided outages from this storm altogether.

The aftermath of storms and straight-line winds left Mark Hess on clean-up duty and his home without power.

“It was just a constant thrashing of branches hitting the house and hitting the buildings,” he said.

Hess says he paid to have the power lines that connect to his house buried on his property two decades ago to avoid this issue, but since his underground utility wires connect to overhead lines at the street, he’s out of power and air conditioning just like his neighbors.

“I was hoping it would save me some grief but it’s a nice country road, a lot of trees, unfortunately there’s power wires there and it’s not untypical for us to be without power once or twice a year,” he said.

We Energies says 45 percent of its 28,000 miles of power lines in southeastern Wisconsin are buried underground. Spokesman Brendan Conway says there’s a reason a majority of their lines are still strung along poles.

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“We’ve certainly had underground lines for decades. If you think of downtown Milwaukee, right, you haven’t seen power lines there in a long time, but anytime we make that decision, it’s a balancing act because it’s costly,” Conway said. "That cost is obviously something customers absorb.”

When asked if mass outages could be prevented during similar storms if all of We Energies power lines were underground, Conway responded, “We’d probably still have outages because if a tree tips over and it’s near a line, you do see that.”

Oconomowoc Utility Manager Joe Pickart says that wasn’t the case in their city that has 85 percent of its power lines underground. Pickart says they completely avoided power outages overnight because of it.

“There were trees that came down that just took down communications. If there would have been overhead wires in that area, they would have came down with it,” he said.

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Pickart says Oconomowoc’s Common Council decided 15 years ago to gradually replace overhead lines underground to make the community more visually appealing to residents and visitors, but more so because Pickart says it’s simply more reliable in times like these when it’s out of sight and out of mind.

“We’re hoping that 100 percent of the community will be underground at some point. It takes a long time to convert everything and it’s a costly process to put underground versus overhead, and there is a factor of the degradation of underground lines. They don’t last as long as overhead,” he said.

We Energies said all of their downed overhead power lines from this storm were caused by trees falling on them.

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