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This fact sheet summarizes several of the major differences between underground and overhead transmission lines. The information was drawn from a number of sources, including major studies completed in different parts of the world by parties interested in determining the viability of underground transmission cables to meet specific electricity needs. This information does not present a position for or against their use in the context of the Heartland or any other transmission project.
Factors that can influence the selection of underground cables
Four main factors normally influence the decision on whether underground cables are considered as an alternative to meet the required electricity need for a project. These factors are: • Technical feasibility; • Reliability of service; • Environment; and • Overall cost. In some circumstances, location specific constraints may also play a role in the decision to use underground cables.
Underground feasibility study being conducted by the Alberta Electric System Operator
The Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO’s) is currently conducting a study to assess the technical feasibility and cost of using high voltage 500 kV Alternating Current (AC) underground cables for the Heartland Transmission Project. In particular the AESO’s study will look at the feasibility of deploying up to an 8 – 10 kilometre section of AC underground cables as one component of a larger AC overhead project. The AESO’s study will focus on AC underground. Work completed during the AESO’s project alternative analysis determined that Direct Current (DC) underground was not an acceptable alternative for the Heartland Project. Factors effecting this decision included: • reduced operational reliability (risk of long outage durations); • future reduced flexibility (higher incremental cost to increase capacity) ; and • higher cost (higher initial installation and ongoing power losses associated with the conversion of AC to DC). For more information regarding the AESO’s summary report of its analysis of the various alternatives, titled “Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Bulk Transmission Development”, visit their web site at www.AESO.ca. The AESO’s study of the feasibility of AC underground cables is expected to be completed by late summer.
Technical feasibility refers to factors regarding the maturity of the technology, and whether it can be integrated into an existing transmission system and operated dependably. Technical feasibility for 500 kV underground cables is difficult to determine as there are currently very few other underground 500 kV cables in service in the world and only one with an underground line length greater than five kilometres that we were aware of at time of printing. The AESO’s study will include an examination of the technical feasibility of deploying up to an 8 – 10 kilometre section of 500 kV AC underground cables as one component of a larger AC overhead project.
Reliability of service
Reliability of service refers to the amount of time a transmission line is available to transport electricity. Underground cables are much less susceptible to weather-related outages. However, longer repair times for underground cables result in a significant difference in overall reliability performance. Reliability of service for 500 kV underground cables is difficult to determine as there are currently very few other underground 500 kV cables in service in the world. However, information published by the European Commission for 400 kV overhead lines shows outage statistics of 0.126 hours per kilometre per year for overhead lines compared to 6.4 hours per kilometre per year for comparable underground cables. Using these statistics, assuming a 100-kilometre 400 kV transmission line, the average time where the overhead lines would be out of service is 12.6 hours per year compared to almost 27 days per year for underground cables. These outage statistics take into account both scheduled maintenance outages and unplanned outages.
Alternating Current (AC): an electric current that reverses its direction at regularly recurring intervals. In North America, the standard for alternating current is 60 complete cycles each second. Such electricity is said to have a frequency of 60 hertz. Direct Current (DC): An electric current flowing in one direction only and substantially constant in value. The current supplied from a battery is direct current.
Information available as of May 1, 2009
continuous trenching and underground vaults every several hundred metres. the more labour and time intensive construction process and the higher cost of maintaining underground facilities and higher line losses associated with underground cables operated at certain load levels. After construction is complete. riparian (rivers. Magnetic fields cannot be shielded by insulation. Using the same assumptions. the measured magnetic field above underground cables is typically similar or stronger than at ground level directly below overhead lines. Depending on the location. available information related to 400 kV installations indicates that life cycle operating costs are 1. localized heating of the soil and alterations in ground and surface water drainage patterns. including underground vaults. one with an underground line length greater than five kilometres that we were aware of at time of printing to use as a comparison. The cost to build.0 million per kilometre to construct. with the exception of tower locations. However.ca Information available as of May 1.5 to 2. In Alberta. cultural heritage (archaeological) and paleontological features.Environment Underground cables eliminate the potential for bird contacts (which could cause injury or death to the birds) that overhead lines present. given their closer proximity to ground level. and vehicles. some tree and vegetation management may be required in the area surrounding the transmission line. Underground facilities present some environmental impacts. Overhead lines have minimal impacts on most environmental features including natural heritage (plants and animals). Underground cables also largely eliminate the visual impact of the transmission facilities on the landscape. then the cost of a 50 kilometre 500 kV underground line would be approximately $1. Overall cost The cost of any technical solution is a consideration for Albertans because the construction and operation of transmission facilities is paid for by all Alberta ratepayers through their electricity bills. not including the cost of substations. As overhead power lines are bare wires. For example. chemical and other techniques to encourage the growth of low vegetation to reduce the risk of a fire or outage caused by branches or tree limbs contacting transmission lines. This is due to the higher maintenance costs and higher line losses. the heat produced by energized cables dissipates into the surrounding soil and may result in localized impacts on vegetation. This leaves the ground and subsurface virtually untouched. install and operate underground cables is greater than overhead cables.35 per month to every residential bill in Alberta. for every $100 million added to a transmission project’s cost. building walls. but do have some environmental impacts. Underground cables and their accompanying insulation and shielding effectively stop electric fields. The ability to tightly space underground cables may allow for greater cancellation of magnetic fields by the cables themselves when compared to overhead lines. Electric and magnetic fields Electric and magnetic fields are everywhere there is electricity.5 billion in comparison to $150 million for an overhead line. As to the cost of operating high voltage underground cable. trees. Field levels for underground cables decrease more quickly compared to overhead lines as you move further away from them. cement or earth and will be measurable at both underground and overhead installations. after construction is complete. Overhead lines span across long distances with approximately 350 metres between tower locations. 2009 . if the cost of an underground line is 10 times more expensive. The underground vaults can be 10 metres long by four metres wide.heartlandtransmission. The construction process for underground installation requires soil stripping. streams). electric fields can be measured near these lines.ca Visit: www. Drainage may need to be altered temporarily or permanently depending on the construction of underground cable trenches. the average monthly bill for each resident in Alberta would increase by approximately 13 cents. Costs for 500 kV underground cables are more difficult to estimate as there are currently very few other underground 500 kV cables in service in the world and only For information on the proposed Heartland Transmission Project: Call Toll-Free: 1-888-441-7192 E-mail: PublicConsultation@heartlandtransmission. Tree and vegetation management includes the use of mechanical. available information related to 400 kV underground facilities indicate that costs are normally between four and 20 times higher than equivalent overhead options. However. An underground 50 kilometre line would add approximately $2 per month to every residential electricity bill in Alberta. preliminary estimates suggest that a 500 kV AC overhead line could cost approximately $3. if the line were to be underground for 10 kilometres and then overhead for the remaining 40 kilometres the cost of the transmission line itself would increase from $150 million for an entirely above-ground line to $420 million. This is due to the higher cost of materials (more underground cables are required to carry the same amount of power as one overhead line).5 times higher than overhead lines. A ten kilometre section of underground would add approximately $0. For the Heartland Project. Electric fields can be shielded by such things as insulation.
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