Underground. It was the 1960s, and everybody in the electric utility industry was talking about underground—distribution lines and service drops buried directly in trenches or pulled through conduit.
Utilities serving cities and suburbs had already buried thousands of miles of power lines, but co-ops were just getting into it in a big way. Serving mostly sparsely populated areas where houses were far apart, co-ops had less pressure on them to deliver their product without obstructing views with poles and lines.
But that was changing. Many rural areas were becoming exurbs, places where a commuter who didn't mind the weekly miles could hold down a job in the city.
L.T. “Tommie" Gibbs, general manager of
Rutherford EMC in Forest City, North Carolina, had two projects in the works in the spring of 1966: a 165-lot subdivision built around a golf course and a 55-lot subdivision where the developer was putting up all-electric Gold Medallion homes.
Noting that his line crews would have to learn new techniques and use unfamiliar materials, Gibbs predicted “it would take a good while to evaluate the performance of underground distribution."
But he was already impressed with the cost: “Our original construction costs are very comparable to overhead service.
“One must take into consideration the fact that underground distribution eliminates the maintenance on poles, cross-arms, insulators, and other hardware," he added. “It eliminates completely the chance of line and equipment damage from weather and ends the tiresome and costly problems of tree trimming and right-of-way maintenance.
“We feel the cost of underground distribution in a high-density subdivision will turn out to be cheaper than a comparable overhead system."
If done right!
“Underground requires the most exact planning imaginable because it does not lend itself to alteration and rearrangement as does an overhead system," Gibbs stressed.
Rutherford EMC gained experience in underground construction by offering to bury service drops in low-density neighborhoods.
Eighty miles west, another Tarheel State co-op, Hayward EMC, had cut its underground teeth on a custom project: an all-electric lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The U.S. Department of Interior had put a great deal of effort into preserving the natural environment around the lodge and was prepared to go the self-generation route if necessary.
Instead, the Waynesville-based distribution system laid 1,400 feet of direct burial cable and hid a bank of padmount transformers behind laurel bushes and other shrubs so that no visitors to the park would see them.
According to a feature article in the May 1966 issue of RE Magazine, Prince William Electric Cooperative (now
Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative) in Manassas, Virginia, “[led] the nation in cooperative involvement in underground distribution."
Manassas is only 35 miles from Washington, D.C., and the federal bureaucracy was expanding rapidly to create President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Middle- and lower-level government workers needed homes, and Prince William Electric was racing to keep up with the developers who were building them.
The co-op was in the middle of two underground projects that spring totaling 2,500 new services, and it planned to connect another 11,000 underground services over the next three years.
The co-op, one of the biggest in the country today with more than 170,000 accounts, had doubled its membership between 1961 and 1966 and expected to double it again by 1971.
“No one could have imagined five years ago just how big this housing boom would get," General Manager Reuben Hicks said. “We are only thankful we made efforts from the start to learn as much as possible about the various applications of underground distribution in our area."