Many communities have successfully reduced the visual impact of utilities in many innovative ways. The case studies below illustrate a few examples of different approaches that can be taken to reclaiming a community.
Balancing Aesthetics & Affordability: Palo Alto, California
In 1966, Palo Alto became one of the first cities in California to begin undergrounding utility wires. Palo Alto’s city-owned electric company works with other utility providers and city planners to identify priority areas for undergrounding and to implement projects in multiple phases. Palo Alto is also one of the only cities to make low-interest loans available to property owners to offset the cost of hookup from the underground service to their property. In order to prioritize areas for undergrounding, Palo Alto applies the following criteria:
Aesthetics — The visual quality of an area is weighed against the intrusiveness of utilities in the area. Commercial and residential areas are given priority over more open areas.
Reliability — Areas subject to frequent utility disruption are given high priority.
Affordability — The overall cost of the project is weighed against the benefits of conversion.
Creative Approaches to Relocation: Laurel, Maryland
Laurel, MD began an extensive Main Street revitalization program in 1978. Initially Laurel wanted to place its utilities underground, but could not find a way to pay for the conversion. Baltimore Gas and Electric (BG&E) worked with the city to identify alternative utility relocation options. Since Laurel has an extensive alley system, BG&E worked with city planners to design a network that hid all of the utilities in the downtown area in the alleys. On streets approaching the downtown area, utility wires were consolidated on one side of the street and poles moved back an average of eight feet to make them less visible. This creative thinking reduced the total cost of the project to less than $1.3 million.
Selective Screening: Breckenridge, Colorado
Unlike most undergrounding requirements for new development, Breckenridge, CO regulates the placement and appearance of all utility elements, including transformers, meters, and substations. Screening these often overlooked elements can have a tremendous impact on the aesthetic appearance of communities. Breckenridge requires all utility elements to be buried, enclosed or screened in “a style and detail that is compatible with the architecture of the development.”
Innovative Undergrounding: San Antonio, Texas
In 1993, the municipally-owned City Public Services in San Antonio, TX launched one of the most innovative undergrounding schemes in the country. Unlike some other programs, San Antonio’s initiative costs consumers nothing, and gives the city complete political control over undergrounding. The city receives one percent of City Public Services’s retail electric sales revenue to pay for utility burial and relocation. It is up to the city to determine how and where to spend the conversion fund. Because the fund is limited and does not pay for the relocation of other wire-based utilities, the city uses a nine-step process to select and implement projects, with priority on undergrounding in historic districts, public spaces, and scenic areas.