Above-ground power lines in­crease in risk as cli­mate changes

Times Standard (Eureka) - - NEWS - 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 sin­gle 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 in­vestorowne­d 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.

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