AmerenUE plans to bury major lines

Friday, July 13, 2007

AmerenUE wants to target major feeder lines for burial as part of a $1 billion program that will, among other things, improve the reliability of its electrical service, a company spokesman said Thursday.

The utility company will spend $300 million to bury the lines, including about $6 million in Cape Girardeau, Ameren announced. In addition, the company will spend an additional $45 million annually over the next three years to cut back trees with the potential to knock down power lines in a storm.

The money allocated for Cape Girardeau will be enough to bury about six miles of line, Ameren spokesman Tim Fox said. Throughout the Ameren system, the company has identified about more than 1,000 individual projects for work, he said.

Whether the work will be burial of the lines or cutting trees "will be determined on a project-by-project basis," Fox said. The burial work will be done "on projects we think have the greatest impact and where it is economically feasible and affecting the most customers."

Ameren came under harsh criticism in the past 18 months for major outages lasting several days following storms, especially in the St. Louis area. In August, a large section of northeast Cape Girardeau lost power for more than 24 hours following a severe summer storm.

Reliability became an issue for AmerenUE during its recent attempt to win a large rate increase from the Missouri Public Service Commission. The commission granted the company only a fraction of the increase it sought.

The lines targeted for burial will be "feeder" lines, which serve on average 1,500 to 3,000 customers, Fox said. Branch lines into subdivisions, for example, will be more likely to receive tree trimming.

Decisions on which lines to bury will be based on the number of customers served and the gains to be achieved by burying a particular line, Fox said. "This is strictly about improving reliability, and if customers want underground lines for aesthetic reasons, they will have to pay for it. This is about reliability."

The announcement that Ameren was prepared to spend large sums on reliability was good news for Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson, who made reliability one of his points when he criticized Ameren's proposed rate increase.

"Clearly in the past the citizenry has been disappointed with some of the power outages we have had and the time it has taken to get some of our city back on board," Knudtson said. "That represents some of the common complaints."

The new program shows Ameren is listening, Knudtson said.

In addition to cutting trees and burying lines, Ameren will spend $84 million doing detailed inspections of its circuits looking for problems and spend $500 million to improve the environmental controls on the company's power plants.

Replacing existing overhead lines with buried cable costs about $1 million a mile, Fox estimated. When the company is installing lines to serve new construction, the cost of putting electric lines underground is comparable to stringing them on poles, Fox said. But conversions are expensive because it also includes the cost of removing the old system, he said.

Cape Girardeau should see a distinct improvement in reliability once the program is complete, he said. "Six miles of lines can affect a lot of people," he said.

335-6611, extension 126

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