Undergrounding: Jaclyn Cantler, Donna Cooper



Fortnightly Magazine - October 25 2021

As we have experienced the effects of innovation in all aspects of our industry, so too has innovation revolutionized the conversion from "overheading" to undergrounding. Converting selected overhead wires to underground cables has consequently become a compelling option for utilities across the country. PUF discusses this topic with Dominion Energy's Les Carter, Florida Power & Light's Jerry Cook, Pepco's Jaclyn Cantler and Donna Cooper, Southern California Edison's Raj Roy, Thuan Tran and Angel Brito, and TECO Energy's Dave Plusquellic. 


PUF's Steve Mitnick: What's been Pepco's experience in selective undergrounding?

Jaclyn Cantler: I'm the vice president of project and contract management for Pepco Holdings, which includes Pepco, Atlantic City Electric, and Delmarva Power. At Pepco, particularly in the District, we have a long history with underground feeders.

Half our customers in D.C. are served by our underground system. It's a robust network system, so we've had a lot of experience. We've coupled that experience with a large program called D.C. PLUG – District of Columbia Power Line Undergrounding – where we are undergrounding up to thirty feeders within the District.

Pepco crew installing cable underground.

It's through a partnership with the District Department of Transportation or DDOT and D.C. government. We're excited to use our history here and move forward with this project.

Donna Cooper: I'm the Pepco region president. The undergrounding of additional feeders for the District of Columbia had been a subject that has come up intermittently. 

Then we experienced the derecho in 2012. We had so many customers impacted across the region, with customers experiencing multiple day outages.

That event furthered the need to increase the resiliency of our system. About three-quarters of our infrastructure is underground in the District of Columbia. However, it's largely the downtown footprint.

Pepco at work undergrounding.

We have Wards three, four, five, seven, and eight, which are similar to districts in other areas that are served by overhead feeders, primarily. These are the communities where many residents live.

We also have a large tree canopy. The 2012 derecho and its strength brought down many of our power lines and transformers, and trees toppled our infrastructure.

Following that event, we came together with the District of Columbia government. The Mayor called on Pepco to partner with the District and we committed our resources within engineering, operations, etcetera, to work collaboratively to develop a plan.

Our president and CEO co-led the Task Force with the City Administrator. The focus was on making our system more resilient in the face of increased weather events, with an emphasis on undergrounding electric power lines. The District of Columbia Power Line Task Force worked collaboratively for over a year to reach consensus on an approach to undergrounding power lines.

PUF: What were the benefits for Pepco customers? How was the response by customers and other key constituencies?

Jaclyn Cantler: We're taking these overhead facilities and putting them underground. The facilities that will be placed underground are what we call the primary overhead conductors, which can include multiple conductors along main roadways and individual or single conductors that branch off as laterals. 

By placing them underground, there's less of an impact when major storms hit. The overall result has been positive. The project's inaugural feeder is one hundred percent complete and in service as of the end of 2020.

You're going to see much improved reliability at the end of this six-to-eight-year program. Our community relations, and government and external affairs group are actively involved in the effort.

Because clearly when you're working in the street, it can be disruptive. We have focused on making sure we have a solid customer and stakeholder engagement strategy.

We're keeping customers informed on when we're going to be in their neighborhoods, and what to expect. That outreach has helped them understand that, while there may be community impacts as we go through construction, the improved resiliency and reliability is worth it.

PUF: Talk about the reaction of customers, and other constituencies too.

Donna Cooper: We had diverse stakeholders at the table to move this initiative forward – the Office of the People's Counsel, Public Service Commission, key District agencies and departments, residents, the Council of the District of Columbia.

We collectively filed a customer education plan with the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, which is transparent and ensures that our customers are aware of the initiative, its purpose and benefit. 

The plan also outlines actions to engage customers throughout the project. It looked at milestones regarding the project, and how we can effectively communicate. We are adhering to that, as well as adjusting as necessary based on experience.

You will receive feedback from the communities, and we must always have a process in place to mitigate any concerns that may arise. We have a mailbox that is monitored and a process to ensure timely responses.

We execute community meetings and open houses to provide updates on the project and to receive customer and community feedback. Due to COVID-19, these meetings are executed virtually. 

PUF: People in the communities felt that this project is protecting the trees. Because beforehand, there was a lot of, why are you cutting back our beautiful trees?

Donna Cooper: Vegetation management is important to ensure there is appropriate clearance between trees and power lines. Undergrounding power lines helps to mitigate tree limbs from coming into contact with the lines that deliver service to customers. This helps to prevent and decrease outages.

This project will not result in all lines being placed underground because the methodology focuses on those lines that have had the highest number of outages, considerate of the impact of weather events, as well on outages. Therefore, we will continue to manage the infrastructure and appropriate clearances in areas that continue to have overhead infrastructure or partial underground infrastructure.

However, we have arborists who are committed to vegetation management practices that adhere to standards and codes. We work with our local forestry departments as well.

But we have arborists who are committed to working with our local agencies.

We've always executed our work in a way that is responsive and recognizes the importance of protecting the tree canopy, as this is critical from an environmental perspective.

PUF: This area for a major undergrounding project, of relating to communities and different constituencies, that's a key innovation?

Donna Cooper: One of the things we had to underscore, because we mentioned community, and this triggered it for me, was that this was not a project related to aesthetics. It was about resiliency and reliability. 

Therefore, questions do arise. Will poles be removed? In many cases, the answer is, no. The poles continue to be needed for telecommunications and other infrastructure that is attached.

Education and engagement are key to ensuring that our customers and communities are aware of the actual scope of the project and its purpose. When we have the opportunity to engage, there is always greater understanding from our customers and communities.

Jaclyn Cantler: When we talk about the benefits of the partnership among Pepco, the District, and DDOT, we also looked at what other projects are happening at the same time. We have tailored our project schedule to coordinate with other work going on as much as possible in an attempt to reduce the impact.

There's a lot of thought that goes into it, and having those three entities at the table, communicating about current and future plans, helps to make the impact of all this construction more streamlined.

PUF: What innovations in undergrounding were helpful? Talk about some of these technical issues that matter in terms of how fast you can do it, cost, and reliability.

Jaclyn Cantler: Our number one priority is safety. On the innovation space, we're deploying equipment underground that we can work with from above ground with specific tools.

These are special transformers that are being installed underground, and you can work on them from above. They require less maintenance, so you don't have to address them as frequently as you would overhead facilities.

A person can stand on the street with a hot stick and intercept a piece of equipment, which goes to making sure our solutions are promoting safety. Due to less maintenance, you're putting workers in the line of danger less frequently.

 We also leverage fault detection devices, which can help expedite the troubleshooting when there is an interruption associated with an underground facility. We're leveraging all of our experience with our extensive underground system in this new program.

PUF: Talk about the policy innovations.

Donna Cooper: That was one of the first unique aspects about this project, is that it is enabled through legislation. There are various policy interests outlined in the legislation. 

There is a focus on advancing economic benefits; contracting opportunities for local and diverse business enterprises; employment opportunities for local residents and affordability.

The Task Force also advanced equity regarding undergrounding power lines, meaning equity regarding the number of power lines that would be underground in each ward. The methodology ranked the feeders based on performance as well as equity.

The financing construct was also critical. There is a fifty-fifty construct, with resources advanced by the District of Columbia Government and Pepco's traditional debt/equity structure. 

This construct, along with the amortization period, resulted in the initiative being more affordable for customers. We had to answer the questions: How do we execute a project to achieve meaningful outcome, while not resulting in significant costs to customers? What is the best framework? We had to consider multiple variables.

All stakeholders recognized that significant weather events result in extended outages, and this is a cost to residents and the District. It was clear for all parties that the benefits of the final plan outweighed the costs, as there are losses when you have an outage.

The model selected, addressed the cost of undergrounding that is often too prohibitive. This construct has been successful and is something others should examine.

PUF: What advice would you offer to utilities around the country as they consider undergrounding projects?

Jaclyn Cantler: Importance of participation by all impacted entities, and stakeholders that were included – the District, DDOT, and business owners. Everybody having a seat at the table. It's what is helping this program be successful. 

This is one of the many investments we've been making in Pepco over the years since the derecho to make the system more reliable. We increased our reliability of the system over the last ten years by about sixty-eight percent.

That's just not a product of putting facilities underground, it's also installing auto-sectionalizing devices, and upgrading aged equipment. In 2020, Pepco had the best reliability year ever. On average, we see about one outage per customer a year now in Pepco, based on reliability improvements we've been investing in.

Donna Cooper: Every utility is making investments in, and upgrading infrastructure, so there needs to be a hard look and evaluation of the of the upgrades they're making, and how their system is performing, as well as the vulnerabilities they have identified.

These entities have their independent data and they also receive feedback from their customers, the Commissions, and other interests. As a regulated utility, we report on system performance and there is ongoing evaluation regarding plans to improve reliability and resiliency.

A question that is consistent is, what more can be done to improve service to customers? Utilities have to respond to the questions. What is that more? Is it undergrounding? What is the cost? What are ways to mitigate the impact? Does the cost outweigh the benefits?

Climate change is real, and we're seeing more significant weather events. It's not a matter of whether we will experience significant weather events, but a matter of when. We have to ensure, as utilities, that we are providing the highest level of service to our customers and balancing costs.

With increased weather events, we must have a focus on resiliency. Therefore, engaging multiple interested stakeholders, with our customers being foremost, is critical. We must build partnerships, share information, and make informed decisions, collaboratively.

For other utilities, it's bringing stakeholders forward and into the planning process. It's being proactive, advancing where there are vulnerabilities, and building partnerships to advance plans to ensure resiliency. 

Too often, we will come together during an event, and after the event, the planning ceases. It requires a commitment after the event passes.


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