Project may cost some Ameren customers up to $750

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

One year ago, AmerenUE announced a $1 billion, three-year initiative that would improve the reliability of its electrical service through the burial of its customers' underground lines.

While the energy company promises Project Power On will provide more reliable service and fewer outages, the switch will cost customers who will use the service as much as $750 in out-of-pocket expenses. The program pertains only to customers whose yards will be directly affected by undergrounding work.

Those targeted for the work are customers whose lines could be affected most by damage from a future storm, such as the February ice storm in Cape Girardeau County. Ameren sent letters to customers recently explaining more about the project.

"We determined the project locations through a systematic, systemwide analysis of the grid, looking at the worst-performing circuits and determining which of those would benefit from undergrounding, areas where we had a lot of tree-related damage in storms," Ameren spokesman Tim Fox said. "We carefully targeted those areas that would give us the most amount of reliability improvement and affect the greatest number of customers for the dollars committed."

About 5,000 customers in Cape Girardeau have been or will be affected by the initiative. To date, 10 projects have been completed, 42 are under design, ten are under consideration and one is in construction.

Affected customers will receive a $750 rebate check from the company, according to Fox. The check will cover roughly half of the customers' initiative-related expenses, he said.

Fox explained the check is intended to provide a meaningful incentive for those who choose to convert their service from overhead to underground.

He stressed participation in Project Power On is voluntary. Ameren cannot force its customers to participate in the venture, Fox added.

"We are working to let customers know about the program as quickly as possible so they have time to save up the needed funds," Fox said. "They will have several months to save up for the work if they choose to have it done."

Ameren spokesman Mike Cleary added that the company is planning to spend more than $6 million on undergrounding projects in Cape Girardeau County and nearly $2.3 million in Scott County over the three-year period. The amounts budgeted for Power On projects are based on the number of customers served in each county, he said.

According to a brochure released by the company, a typical overhead service entrance for a residential customer includes seven components. Of those, Ameren owns the service wires, house knob and meter. Ameren will install and connect the underground wires into the buried service conduits for free.

The customers own the weather head, drip loop wires, service entrance pipe and meter box, which they will be responsible for removing with their own money. The brochure states the new meter box accepts "bottom-fed" cables from underneath, as opposed to "top-fed" wires from above.

The customer also will be responsible for installing a new buried service conduit that will extend to the underside of the new meter box, which is the plastic pipe that will hold the underground cable.

PAR Electrical Contractors, Inc., has been named project manager for the initiative. However, Fox said customers can "shop around" by calling National Electric Contractor's Association at 800-888-6322 or Independent Electric Contractors at 800-456-4324.

Once complete, Ameren will place utility boxes near streets for easy access by Ameren crews. The configuration of the existing structures will determine its placement.

Currently, an overhead transformer takes high voltages on Ameren's spans of overhead wire and transforms them down to a more usable level that appears inside one's home or business. The underground equivalent of the overhead transformer is the padmount transformer, which Fox said will be near the front of the house or the most street-accessible part of the property.

He said that certain situations will not allow the underground conversion to take place.

One such situation would be if private property owners are not willing to provide the easements necessary for Ameren to construct and operate the underground system. An easement is the legal right of a public or private entity to use part of a property owner's land.

"Wherever the lines are now is where our easement is," Fox said. "We try to work within existing easements as much as we can and disrupt the customer as little as we can. Whatever easement we need to obtain, we will work with the city or customer do obtain."

bblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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