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California Wildfires Show Need for Underground Power Lines

January 6, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Homes burn as wildfires rip through a development Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in Superior, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

WASHINGTON — California fire officials this week accelerated calls for drastic action to confront global warming when they blamed overhead power lines for the second biggest wildfire in the state’s history.

The Dixie Fire burned nearly 1 million acres last year, sparked by an overhead power line touching a tree in a region where wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s largest utility, announced recently it would shift about 10,000 miles of its power lines underground. The cost estimates reach as high as $30 billion.

Chief Executive Officer Patricia Poppe said the utility has no better option.

“It’s too expensive not to do it,” Poppe told reporters. “Lives are on the line.”

Other regions plagued by intensifying wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes also are demanding a hedge against overhead power line hazards like fires or electrical outages. The result for consumers is likely to be higher utility bills to pay for burying the cables.

The report this week from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, said the Dixie Fire erupted on PG&E electrical distribution lines in the northeastern part of the state on July 13, 2021. It burned for three months, killed one person and destroyed 1,329 structures.

The utility volunteered information about the fire to the California Public Utilities Commission as it investigated. PG&E reported that one of its field technicians discovered the wildfire as he responded to a power outage in a remote part of Butte County, California.

The technician “observed two of three fuses blown and what appeared to him to be a healthy green tree leaning into the Bucks Creek 1101 12 kV conductor,” the report said.

The technician has been a witness in a federal court lawsuit against the company that still is pending.

Liability from wildfires was one factor that drove PG&E to file for bankruptcy protection in January 2019. The utility faces billions of dollars in lawsuit claims.

A judge’s approval of the company’s reorganization plan made PG&E eligible to share in a $21 billion state-administered wildfire fund to cover some of its future losses when its equipment starts blazes.

Part of the reorganization calls for PG&E to place more of its cable underground to keep it away from vegetation that is drying out with global warming. The utility says buried power lines should prevent some power cutoffs that otherwise would be needed to prevent the spread of fires.

The ambitious plan for 10,000 miles of buried cables still would leave roughly 15,000 miles of lines carrying electricity overhead in some of California’s most fire-prone areas.

PG&E’s lament about wanting more underground power lines but not having the money is shared in other states where natural disasters are taking a toll.

Some of them are found along the Gulf Coast, where utilities fell under criticism for not burying more cables underground ahead of Hurricane Ida last August.

The Category 4 hurricane was the second-most damaging and intense hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana on record, behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It killed 115 people and caused $65.25 billion in damage.

Ida left destruction up through the Atlantic Coast from high winds and tornadoes but it was worst in Louisiana. More than a million of the state’s residents lost all electrical power.

Restoring it took weeks and led some residents to demand a more resilient power grid.

Officials from Entergy Corporation, which provides power service in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, said buried lines are practical only far from the coasts. Otherwise, subsurface flooding could damage the lines.

Additional words of caution came from Theodore Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center. He wrote an editorial last September after the passing of Hurricane Ida for the nonprofit news site The Conversation. 

“Areas with little risk of storm surge and flooding may decide that underground power lines are the best choice, if the community is willing to accept the cost,” Kury wrote. “No system is sustainable if customers aren’t willing to pay for it. Differences in geography, population density, societal preferences and willingness to pay across a utility’s service area — especially in a diverse city like New Orleans — mean that no blanket policy will work everywhere.”

Any further government support for underground power lines could come from the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan. Its climate provisions include proposals for the resiliency of the power grid.

Details of how funding would be allocated are being hammered out in congressional negotiations.

The most recent proposal would spend about $100 billion on energy infrastructure with a goal of transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity production by 2035.

It would establish a “Grid Deployment Authority” within the Department of Energy to encourage construction of high-voltage transmission lines. An undetermined number of them would be placed underground.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com

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