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 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 hazard-mitigation 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 community-owned 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 14-foot 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.