Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ellen Knick­meyer and Jo­ce­lyn Gecker

WASH­ING­TON >> Trees top­pling onto above-ground power lines spark wild­fires, more than 1,000 of them in the last decade in Cal­i­for­nia alone. The wires snap in bliz­zards and hur­ri­canes, caus­ing days­long out­ages. Ev­ery­where, power poles top­ple in all kinds of dis­as­ters, block­ing es­cape routes.

Around the U.S., deal­ing with the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of over­head power lines — one of many prob­lems that ex­perts say will only get worse as the cli­mate de­te­ri­o­rates — by bury­ing them or strength­en­ing them is spotty and dis­or­ga­nized on a na­tional level, and pain­fully slow, at best.

Util­i­ties say there’s no one best way to safe­guard the mil­lions of miles of U.S. power lines and that do­ing so would cost many bil­lions of dol­lars — $3 mil­lion for a sin­gle mile of power lines by some es­ti­mates. Crit­ics counter by point­ing to the at least equally great eco­nomic costs of out­ages and util­ity-sparked wild­fires. Es­ti­mated prop­erty losses for a sin

gle such wild­fire, a Cal­i­for­nia blaze that killed 85 last year, reached $16.5 bil­lion.

Over­all, elec­tri­cal out­ages caused by bad weather cost the U.S. econ­omy up to $33 bil­lion in an av­er­age year — and more, in an es­pe­cially bad weather year, the En­ergy Depart­ment es­ti­mated in 2013. The re­searchers es­ti­mated there were 679 wide­spread out­ages from harsh weather be­tween 2003 and 2012.

Af­ter elec­tri­cal wires sparked many of Cal­i­for­nia’s ma­jor wild­fires in 2017 and 2018, and threat­ened more this au­tumn, many there turned their fear and anger on PG&E, the state’s largest in­vestor-owned util­ity.

Vicki McCaslin, a 60-year-old re­peat evac­uee in the San Fran­cisco Bay area, de­scribed spot­ting a PG&E worker in her neigh­bor­hood dur­ing a lull in last month’s wind and fires.

McCaslin burst into tears as she begged the util­ity worker to cut off power to her area be­fore the winds and wild­fires re­sumed, she re­counted. “It scares me to death to think of those kinds of winds with our power on.”

Na­tion­ally, ex­perts say, prob­lems with 19th cen­tury-style set-ups of wires dan­gling from wooden poles will only grow as cli­mate change in­creases the sever­ity and fre­quency of hur­ri­canes, wild­fires, big snow­storms and other dis­as­ters like tor­na­dos.

It’s a prob­lem na­tion­wide, not just in Cal­i­for­nia. In coastal states such as Florida, hur­ri­canes top­ple poles and knock out power for days. And in heart­land states like Min­nesota, it’s win­try ice storms and high winds that bring the elec­tri­cal wires crash­ing down.

Cru­cially, though, it’s not a na­tion­ally reg­u­lated prob­lem. That means that across

the coun­try, in­volve­ment and fund­ing from the fed­eral govern­ment on bury­ing and other­wise strength­en­ing com­mu­nity elec­tri­cal grids have been scat­tered and small-scale.

That’s be­cause it’s state and lo­cal of­fi­cials, not fed­eral ones, who hold most of the di­rect reg­u­la­tory au­thor­ity over lo­cal elec­tri­cal in­fra­struc­ture and lo­cal util­ity rates, said Ted Kury, di­rec­tor of en­ergy stud­ies for the Univer­sity of Florida’s Pub­lic Util­ity Re­search Cen­ter.

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors’ role is largely limited to over­see­ing high-volt­age trans­mis­sion lines that cross state bor­ders.

Na­tion­ally, a 2012 study es­ti­mated one-fourth of new power lines are buried.

The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency’s haz­ard-mit­i­ga­tion pro­gram has handed out $176 mil­lion for 156 projects to bury power lines, in 16 states and four U.S. ter­ri­to­ries, FEMA says. Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSan­tis signed leg­is­la­tion this year to en­cour­age mov­ing power lines un­der­ground, has been one of the top re­cip­i­ents, along with Min­nesota.

But the FEMA haz­ard­mit­i­ga­tion grants for the work so far break down to a lit­tle more than $1 mil­lion per project. In Cal­i­for­nia, where PG&E over­sees 100,000 miles of over­head elec­tri­cal lines, that av­er­age size of grant doesn’t cover the price tag PG&E puts on bury­ing a sin­gle mile of line.

That mostly leaves house­holds with the bill for do­ing any bury­ing of power lines, mostly through in­creased elec­tri­cal rates.

In prac­tice, that means more af­flu­ent com­mu­ni­ties with the means to pay higher rates are some­times the ones get­ting their lines buried, in de­ci­sions driven as much by looks as by safety and con­ve­nience.

In Palm Beach, Florida, a re­sort com­mu­nity of first, sec­ond and third homes,

prop­erty own­ers paid at­ten­tion when a util­ity be­gin to erect unlovely con­crete power poles as part of an ef­fort to har­den the state’s elec­tri­cal grid against hur­ri­canes.

In­stead of ac­cept­ing the con­crete poles, Palm Beach’s res­i­dents nar­rowly voted in 2017 to pay for a $90 mil­lion bond is­sue, paid for by prop­erty own­ers, to bury the over­head lines.

“There’s big ben­e­fits,” said Steven Stern, man­ager of Palm Beach’s un­der­ground­ing util­i­ties pro­gram, who noted hur­ri­canes some­times knocked out power for days. And “the look is fan­tas­tic.”

In some places, bury­ing the elec­tri­cal lines is all but phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble, util­i­ties and oth­ers ar­gue.

In parts of Cal­i­for­nia’s Sierra Ne­vada and other ranges, for in­stance, that would en­tail ex­ca­vat­ing into gran­ite.

In Florida, Mike Hy­land, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Power As­so­ci­a­tion for com­mu­ni­ty­owned util­i­ties, has seen util­i­ties try and fail to bury ca­ble in the un­sta­ble sand.

Util­ity com­pa­nies ar­gue that in some parts of the coun­try, bury­ing power lines would make prob­lems worse, es­pe­cially as storms and sea rise worsen with cli­mate change. Hy­land points to Su­per­storm Sandy in 2012, when a nearly 14foot tidal surge flooded un­der­ground elec­tri­cal net­works even as the storm top­pled above-ground lines, de­priv­ing more than 8 mil­lion peo­ple of power.

For elec­tric util­i­ties look­ing at how to har­den their net­works against the varied cli­mate change pot­pourri of sea rise, heavy rains, wind, drought and wild­fires, “it’s all these sce­nar­ios com­ing at you,” Hy­land said. “Plus at the end of the day you’ve got a squir­rel jump­ing on your lines.”

In Cal­i­for­nia, state lead­ers and or­di­nary peo­ple in­creas­ingly ac­cuse PG&E of neg­li­gence for not mov­ing faster to safe­guard power lines serv­ing more than 5 mil­lion homes and businesses.

Cal­i­for­nia’s worst wild­fire sea­sons on record, in terms of prop­erty dam­age and deaths, were in 2017 and 2018. State fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors found sparks from PG&E elec­tri­cal equip­ment re­spon­si­ble for many of the fires. That in­cludes the state’s dead­li­est fire ever, a wild­fire — started by PG&E power lines — that killed 85 peo­ple and all but wiped out the north­ern Cal­i­for­nia town of Par­adise.

State in­ves­ti­ga­tions in re­cent years con­cluded the util­ity put a pri­or­ity on fi­nan­cial per­for­mance, in­clud­ing di­vert­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in­tended for safety up­grades to share­hold­ers and to bonuses for com­pany ex­ec­u­tives.

The state is re­quir­ing PG&E to make $5 bil­lion in safety im­prove­ments, said Ann Pat­ter­son, one of the mem­bers of a team ap­pointed by Gov. Gavin New­som to safe­guard res­i­dents from the elec­tri­cal net­work. Bury­ing power lines is “one tool in the tool­box” to that end, Pat­ter­son said.

PG&E spokes­woman Jen­nifer Ro­bi­son says the util­ity has spent $15 bil­lion on its elec­tri­cal net­work over the last five years and will have buried or other­wise har­dened 150 miles of power lines in 2019 by the end of the year.

PG&E pro­poses to cover, strengthen or bury 7,100 miles of over­head lines in the next decade, Ro­bi­son said.

That’s less than one-10th of the util­ity’s ex­ist­ing over­head lines, how­ever.

In the mean­time, PG&E this year stepped up a con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram of in­ten­tional cut-offs dur­ing times of high winds. Two months of wide­spread, re­peat out­ages — one of which af­fected 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple — plunged count­less into dark­ness and ig­nited crit­i­cism from law­mak­ers.


Flames burn near power lines in Sy­camore Canyon near West Moun­tain Drive in Mon­tecito.


Pa­cific Gas & Elec­tric crews work on restor­ing power lines in a fire rav­aged neigh­bor­hood in an aerial view in the af­ter­math of a wild­fire in Santa Rosa.

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