Stopping hurricane power outages

HOUSTON The popular option of fixing the power line problem comes with a price tag so big, even the government does not think it is affordable.

In the days following Hurricane Ike, two things became very clear, the power was not going to be restored to everyone quickly and something had to be done to keep wide spread outages from crippling our area in the future.

One plan to protect the power grid seems simple, bury the lines. But city officials say with a $35 billion price tag that is not going to happen on a wide scale. However when projects come up that require tearing up the street, the city will then look to have power lines buried.

"We are saying whenever you open up the street for telecom purposes for sewer, for sanitary purposes, for water line construction, let's talk about under grounding," said Paul Hobby who is a task force director.

That's not to say things cannot be done now to limit power outages in the future. CenterPoint Energy is currently installing smart meters and there are plans to install a smart grid system in our area. Both would quickly identify customers who've lost power and how best to restore it. Consumers are already paying for the improvements in the form of an extra $3.24 to their power bills. A report released by the city of Houston says around $300 million in stimulus money could be used to quicken the pace of the project without increasing the cost.

"We believe we can create thousands of jobs today by accelerating this by using the stimulus money for what it is for, that is job creation and getting the economy started," said Tom Standish of CenterPoint Energy.

The report says there is something that can keep the lights on at a low cost, tree trimming. City officials say oak and magnolia trees did well during the storm, but ash trees, pines and maples did poorly. Keeping those trees away from power lines could help keep massive outages from happening in the first place.

"We are trying to trim better and we are trying to select species on public and private property better than we did before," Hobby told us.

While city officials say power line improvements will not cost consumers any extra dollars that does not mean electricity users are off the hook for Hurricane Ike repair costs.

CenterPoint Energy is asking for permission to charge another $2 per month to power bills to fix the damage done. Officials say it could have been more expensive but the state legislature is allowing the company to pay for recovery costs by buying highly rated bonds at low interest.

"Instead of consumers having to pay an interest rate of anywhere of 8 to 10% today, we expect the interest rate to be 3 or 4%," Standish said.

The Ike repair costs will show up on bills for at least the next ten years.

The mayor tells us the city will set up a Web site to help people do their part in keeping power lines cleared and the city will look to setting up funds to offset the costs of solar panels. The whole idea behind the report was to keep the costs to consumers down and we are told there are no additional costs to consumers in the recommendations.

Officials talked about stimulus money, if they don't get it, what happens to the power grid project?

It goes on, but it will take several years. The applications for the stimulus money will be forwarded to the federal government in a few months.

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