Wellington Scoop

Undergrounding – why is it forgotten?

Photo: RNZ

by Lindsay Shelton
As Chorus work their way through the streets of Wellington, trenching the new fast fibre, it’s evident that a major opportunity has been lost – the chance to underground the cables that hang so messily between our power poles.

Back in 2005, the Wellington City Council trialled a policy to help pay for undergrounding cables. It established a contestable fund, to help residents with the cost. (Residents were expected to put up most of the cash.) The idea lapsed with no money being paid out. Few residents were able to afford the payments.

Last week, undergrounding became an issue again, this time after the storms in Auckland. Brian Rudman, in the NZ Herald, wrote that the cost of repairing lines damaged by winds and falling trees was enormous. “Imagine how much pro-active, supply-securing undergrounding that would have paid for.”

He went on:

It’s not as though undergrounding is a new idea. It’s been compulsory for new developments since the 1960s over much of the region … In 1984 the old Auckland Electric Power Board launched a 40-year programme to underground existing power lines for environmental reasons. This included the old Auckland City, Manukau and Papakura boundaries. By 1988, $8m a year was being spent on the project. This came to a halt following the 1998 crisis. By then, 60 per cent of the wirescape had been buried.

In April 2000, and with the CBD calamity sorted, lines company Vector proposed a grand 10-year campaign to bury all remaining overground powerlines for just $400m. The catch was, it would have to be funded by a 20-25 per cent sell-off of the 100 per cent community-owned enterprise. Vector refused to fund it through borrowing, saying the economic returns would not be worth it. This backdoor privatisation attempt failed and instead, the trust got a commitment from Vector to revive the old undergrounding programme, and commit to $10.5m a year.

Vector now says 45 per cent of its powerlines are above ground, with 60 per cent of those in the north and west. Given last week’s outages, and predictions that with global warming such storms will become more frequent, it’s surely time to speed up this snail-like pace.

In Wellington, we don’t even have a snail-like pace. Back in 2005, however, the council was also thinking about undergrounding on a case by case basis at the same time as street upgrades or infrastructure projects were being carried out. The thinking, like the subsidy, went nowhere.

But the council’s notes at that time are still relevant today:

Utility operators install overhead cables because they are the most cost effective and efficient way to provide services. However overhead cabling can be unsightly and the most popular method of reducing the visual impact is to place the cables underground…To prevent the intensification of overhead cabling, the council approved District Plan changes in 2004 that prevent utility operators from installing any new or additional overhead cabling. Furthermore, [since 1968] the council requires cabling for all new developments to be installed underground….

The council recognises that undergrounding cable networks provides aesthetic and safety benefits. The main drawbacks are the high costs and difficulty deciding how the costs should be shared…The council cannot force utility operators to underground their legally established overhead cables even if funding is provided by residents or the council. However it is worth noting that TelstraClear [now Vodafone] must pay the full costs to underground its overhead cable network when the pole owner on which its network is hung decides to underground its network.

This council report noted that undergrounding could bring a reduction in maintenance costs. And, as the recent Auckland experience has shown, undergrounding can avoid damage caused by storms, high winds, and falling trees. Sadly, the 2005 advice has been forgotten. Chorus continue with their trenching and undergrounding through the streets of Wellington, leaving the mess of overhead cables untouched.


  1. Ian Apperley, 26. April 2018, 13:38

    Yes, agree. There are two aspects to this.

    From what I remember, Chorus has exclusivity over their infrastructure, a hangover from the UFB project and quite silly.

    Second, most mature companies sign up for a LINZ (I think) service that shows when the road or surrounds is being dug up so that they can work together and save costs and time.

  2. Concerned Wellingtonian, 26. April 2018, 19:27

    This is one more example of things in the WCC getting out of control.

  3. Jonny Utzone, 26. April 2018, 23:27

    How will the DP2004 overhead utility ‘ban’ apply to the proposed Light Rail? Across the Tasman, Newcastle NSW has gone for a system without overhead wires for ‘heritage’ reasons and the new Sydney CBD-SE LRT south of Town Hall to Circular Quay on George Street has also gone for ‘underground’ power for similar heritage reasons.

    Also a ‘lame’ reason for dismantling Wellington’s trolley bus system was unsightly overhead wiring and its maintenance (or lack of).

  4. James, 27. April 2018, 12:49

    I thought that one advantage of overhead wiring was that it was easier to repair after an earthquake – I’m sure I saw Roger Sutton on TV in Christchurch a few years ago making that point.

  5. greenwelly, 27. April 2018, 14:12

    @jonny, DP2004 (change 14) requires network operators to get a resource consent only if they want new overhead wiring. I’m fairly sure the wire debate will be part of the process in Auckland, so will provide a guide on what sort of additional costs are acceptable

  6. Segway Jones, 27. April 2018, 16:36

    @James and one disadvantage of overhead wiring is that it gets blown down or knocked down by falling trees during storms. Some poor souls in Titirangi waited for 12 days earlier this month to get their electricity back on.

  7. Simon, 28. April 2018, 4:56

    In answer to your question: because it’s expensive.

  8. C Lawless, 28. April 2018, 9:27

    I see new operator Tranzit is getting a $1.5million overhead charger installed at Island Bay for its double decker bus. I hope passengers and the driver don’t get electron fried during the 8 minute charge up. This adds to the $11million for taking down the trolley bus wires that enabled buses to charge on the go. How remarkably insane. No wonder my rates bill keeps going up.

  9. Piglet, 28. April 2018, 14:46

    Good job I don’t live in Auckland. More wild weather forecast and several power lines are still down from 2 weeks ago. Oh to live in Wellington and its moderate climate. I guess windy Auckland needs to put more cabling underground whereas Wellington can leave it in the air.

  10. Andrew Bartlett, 6. May 2018, 7:35

    I would note that the kind of undergrounding being done for UFB is simply not suitable for almost any other service. UFB is very often being microtrenched from the property boundary, or being tacked on walls or fences. It isn’t being buried in the traditional way, eg 450mm down where power needs to be put. Also, the thin mostly-harmless armoured plastic tubes they blow the fibre in are not comparable to the thick conduit you need to put power in.

    So sadly the costs and opportunities are just not possible to be compared.