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PEC designer RIcky Hess at work
PEC Electrical Distribution Designer Ricky Hess in a rare moment at his desk.
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How we decide where to build power lines

Dec 30, 2017

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In short

Because of the extraordinary growth in our service area, our electrical distribution designers are always busy planning new stretches of line. In doing so, they always keep an eye to the future to ensure it's easy and cost-effective to add on even more line later.

Three primary factors govern new power line placement:

  • Trying for the shortest distance
  • Working with neighbors to get permissions
  • Avoiding natural obstacles, such as flash-flood zones and heritage trees

For many of us, power lines are simply part of the landscape, invisible except for the rare instances they interfere with that perfect photograph of a Hill Country sunset. But those lines aren't there by accident: They're the product of a complex tangle of relationships between cost-effective engineering, private and public property lines and strange quirks of nature.

Welcome to the desk of Ricky Hess, a PEC electrical distribution designer.

"There's a lot that goes into the design," Hess said. "A lot of personal interaction with a wide range of people and needs — contractors, developers, architects, municipalities, electricians, people wanting to open up snow cone stands. No two projects are the same."

Hess' job is part engineer, part planner and part communicator. Though he and the other three full-time designers in Kyle can spend hours at a time planning at their desks, they're just as likely to be on the phone with city inspectors, talking to members or driving trucks to far-flung rural properties as they attempt to piece together the surprisingly tricky puzzle of getting power from Point A to Point B.

How to place a line

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So how do designers and planners decide where to place new power lines? The guiding principles (and limitations) are as follows.

  1. The shortest distance between two points is the most desirable route — not just aesthetically, but economically as well. "We want to design a line which is safe, reliable, and accessible using minimal facilities [poles, transformers, wire], not just because of today's cost, but also considering the future — because whatever we install, we're going to maintain for the life of the line," Hess said. "So if we do a 10-pole job where we could have done it in five poles, we've got to take that into consideration."
  2. Easements and property rights can stop a route cold. "People tend to think that because we're the utility, we can construct lines anywhere we'd like," Hess said. Not so. When new lines must cross over (or under) neighbors' property, PEC must request easement rights — and if those property owners say no, Hess and his team must go back to the drawing board. Often, this means they have to follow a longer and more expensive route.
  3. Geography and terrain can also throw a wrench in the system design. Wet-weather creeks, heritage oaks, existing structures and the loose black soil on the east side of Interstate Highway 35 add new complications to a design, forcing reroutes or deeper pole settings.

"It's all about safety, reliability and efficiency: serving more with less," Hess said. "It takes teamwork to help balance the workload and ensure we are providing our membership with safe and reliable power while trying to minimize our footprint."

Growth

Over the past nine years, Hess has mapped out the new poles and lines of our electrical distribution system in PEC's busy Kyle district. Kyle is a microcosm of the incredible growth in Central Texas over the past several decades: The city's population grew from 5,000 in 2000 to 37,500 in 2016. For electrical distribution designers like Hess, this means an endless parade of new projects and a constant eye to the future.

"Whether we're designing utility lines for overhead or underground, we try to design a line that is accessible and will allow us to extend to the future next-door neighbor's project," Hess said. "If we go to a job site and we see 'for sale' signs on the neighbors' property, or we hear something through our communities we serve, we try to plan accordingly."

From an electrical distribution design standpoint, "planning accordingly" means incorporating opportunities for expansion into the design — what Hess calls an opportunity to "stub out," or build extra conduits into junction boxes. With this amount of growth in the Hill Country, it's no longer safe to assume that any new installation is the end of the line.

"I don't want to have a member 30 years in the future have to tear something up or saw out a concrete pad because I didn't have the forethought now to stub out an extra conduit," he said.

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