Power lines, trees and ice — put them together and it's a power outage waiting to happen.

There's nothing we can do about ice. If Mother Nature feels like coating us with a layer, all we can do is hunker down.

If we happen to hunker in freezing darkness, surrounded by spoiled food and useless gadgets ... well, that might be our own doing.

Power lines don't have to be strung from pole to pole, below tree limbs just waiting to snap with the weight of ice or snow.

Although 80 percent of the country's power lines are above ground, utility companies do occasionally bury them, meaning they're less vulnerable to breaks.

It's more expensive — five to 10 times the cost of installing lines above ground, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — and at least part of that cost is passed on to the customer.

Also, buried lines aren't immune to damage (think flooding); when something does go wrong, it's harder to locate and fix a problem.

But underground lines would have helped during the February ice storm that cut power to nearly 1 million Pennsylvanians, including about 70,000 in York County.

In fact, according to PECO Chief Operating Officer Michael Innocenzo, burying lines — all of them — is the only way providers can be totally immune from the type of tree damage responsible for most of the problems.


He and the heads of PPL and First Energy were called to testify last week before the state House Consumer Affairs Committee. The purpose: help lawmakers establish better policies and encourage utilities to use better practices to reduce or prevent more lengthy power outages.

It seems to us the best — granted, more expensive — practice would be to bury the lines. Yet much of the hearing centered on what utilities have always relied on: keeping the trees around power lines trimmed.

Given the current infrastructure, we understand this is a necessary task, one unnecessarily complicated by a small number of homeowners more concerned about their landscaping than the reliability of their — and their neighbors' — electric service.

However, we think lawmakers missed an opportunity to look beyond the current infrastructure and begin planning a more secure and reliable system.

That's what Washington, D.C., officials did after the freak "derecho" storm of June 2012 knocked out power to some neighborhoods for days, leading to economic losses and inconvenience.

Mayor Vincent Gray needed a "game changer" to avoid a repeat, according to The Washington Post, and appointed a blue-ribbon panel to find one.

Its solution was a $1 billion project — funded by a customer service surcharge of a few dollars a month — to bury the 60 most vulnerable lines in the city. Work is expected to begin later this year.

This is the type of vision we need in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, our lawmakers can't seem to see the forest for the ice-covered trees.