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PG&E will bury 10k miles of power lines so they don't spark wildfires

256 points10 hoursnpr.org
LinuxBender2 hours ago

When they say 10k miles, do they mean 10k miles of land or of cable? Asking because my military unit used individual cables to exaggerate numbers. i.e. 6 strands at 1 mile would become "6 miles of cable run". Either way, great they are doing this. I hope they prevent some fires and save some lives.

rexreed21 minutes ago

"Great they are doing this" but passing the cost on to their customers, who will foot the bill for it. So maybe you should thank the PG&E customers who will end up paying for it.

indymike5 minutes ago

> "Great they are doing this" but passing the cost on to their customers, who will foot the bill for it

It's probably worth it to the customers, too. So much so that PG&E's survival is in question if they don't start taking fire safety super-seriously.

noahmbarr40 minutes ago

It’s a typical non-disclosed denominator issue.

hestefisk2 hours ago

We did this in Denmark many, many years ago. It is also significantly cheaper to maintain as you no longer need to manage vegetation around the powerlines, perform pole / cross-arm inspection etc. In some countries the main hesitation to underground cabling for transmission lines has been up front cost as well as unions (=less maintenance, less work).

bluGill2 hours ago

20 years ago my local power company did the math and discovered underground was more expensive to maintain. Underground you don't need to maintain vegetation, but the lines break more often, and are a lot more expensive to replace.

This obviously depends on local conditions. Where I lived then there was plenty of water so starting a large fire was not possible. The plenty of water also meant the ground wasn't stable. Of course they did need to maintain vegetation, but that is a known cost.

orzig2 hours ago

This is very valuable information if true, can you provide some sort of references?

abduhl1 hour ago

It’s pretty common sense. Underground breaks cost more to fix because you have to dig the line up both to find the problem and fix it. Above ground problems are visible while underground problems are invisible.

Not to mention that above ground lines have slack between poles while underground lines are pulled relatively taut. Any shifting in the ground is going to result in a break underground before a break above ground. Above ground lines are also better founded because the poles are sitting on foundations or driven deep so their ability to resist ground motion is a bit better while electric lines move with the ground around them pretty much in sync. This is particularly important in seismically active areas like CA but underground infrastructure actually typically performs better in actual seismic events.

jschwartzi14 minutes ago

You don’t have to dig up the entire line to find a break. This is a common misconception. Signal reflection can be used to determine the distance to a break.

see: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time-domain_reflectometer

+1
lostcolony40 minutes ago
mattferderer1 hour ago

Another 2 cents. Drones are very popular for being able to quickly look at above ground lines. You can easily & quickly determine if parts are in need of repair or soon will be. I don't know if a similar thing exists in underground without building some type of complex tunnel system.

cpascal48 minutes ago

I'm interested what would cause underground cables to break more often. Is it people not "calling before you dig" and accidentally severing them or is it something else?

lazide40 minutes ago

Ground moves, especially in California. Sometimes it’s subsidence, sometimes landslides, sometimes it’s seismic related, sometimes it’s frost heave or the like. Properly studied and buried (with proper backfill) usually is protected, but big enough changes will cause problems.

Throw in backhoes, erosion, etc. along with it being more expensive to fix when it does break, and overall it isn’t always guaranteed buried will be cheaper maintenance wise.

bluGill36 minutes ago

The slightest crack will allow ground water in shorting out the wires. Cracks are somewhat common after a few years because the ground moves via the yearly freeze-thaw cycles we have up north.

cube0042 minutes ago

Rodents enjoy chewing on them and the chemicals they use to discourage them only last so long.

brianwawok12 minutes ago

Code is for me to bury little tiny cables in my backyard 24" down. These giant mega cables have to be at least 36" down, right? Are rodents going 36" deep and eating into cables really a thing?

bastardoperator10 minutes ago

They've been doing this in California for the last 40+ years. PG&E is just a prime example of why de-regulation doesn't work. LADWP which is a publicly owned utility ran the Scattergood-Olympic Transmission Line (11 miles) under the city nearly 5 years ago and LADWP actually generates revenue for the city of Los Angeles. Honestly, PG&E needs to die in bankruptcy court.

urthor2 hours ago

Imagine it was significantly cheaper if you measured it over a 3+ year time-span.

Not over a 1-2 year time-span.

The unwillingness of corporations to minimize OpEx by taking on significant one-time CapEx, in order to pretty the books, lives on in so many domains.

account4mypc5 minutes ago

Off topic, but how do underground power lines stay cool? I always thought long distance powerlines got really hot.

chongli8 hours ago

I have a question I haven’t seen anyone address so far: how much can we expect this to reduce the frequency of wildfires? Intuitively, to me, the effect would seem to be negligible. All of the conditions for wildfires will remain in place. It’ll simply be something else that lights the spark. If it’s not power lines it’ll be lightning.

So then to follow up: what is the point? To deflect blame from PGE? And who pays for it?

nostrademons8 hours ago

Electrical power causes about 10% of wildfires by number [1], but it's responsible for 7 out of the 20 most devastating wildfires [2]. Perhaps this is because power-line fires happen disproportionally in remote, unattended areas, where they can grow large and uncontrollable before firefighters arrive.

It probably won't solve wildfires - there's still plenty of fuel, and hotter climates, and strong winds - but it can buy some breathing room. I suspect a bigger reason is to maintain the integrity of the grid. Buried power lines don't start fires, but they also don't get taken down when there is a fire, and they won't have a judge order them shut-off when there's a risk of high fire danger. Being perceived as an unreliable source of electricity is a far bigger threat to a utility than burning down a few towns - I know that was the primary reason I went solar, and a lot of my peers are also thinking of disconnecting from the grid because the grid isn't there when you need it.

[1] https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/How-California-s...

[2] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/californias-catastrophi...

bluGill2 hours ago

You have just convinced me that fires will get worse. Every time there is a fire it cleans out all the fuel, so if 10% suddenly go away, that means when the next fire happens there is more fuel for it.

neaanopri1 hour ago

If there isn't any "critical infrastructure" which can be damaged nearby the fire, smaller intentional burns can keep fuel accumulation low.

lazide37 minutes ago

Except no one wants to take the risk that the small fire becomes a huge one - or the smoke will aggravate someone’s asthma then next town over and get sued. Yes, that is a real reason I was quoted from a CalFire rep as to why they had to stop prescribed burns in a major fire risk area in the Sierra Foothills.

kayfox20 minutes ago

Good luck getting permits for a proscribed burn in California.

TheHypnotist3 hours ago

What service do you have where your grid connection is that unreliable? Is it PG&E? Is it due to their "cautiousness"?

mrep2 hours ago

Not op, but PG&E shut off the power to over 2 million people for 3ish days due to high wind fire risk back in 2019: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_California_power_shutoffs...

coding12349 minutes ago

In 2020 it was probably a grand total of 20 days, and restoration took days.

devoutsalsa4 hours ago

It’s like enforcing a policy of not smoking next to the pumps at a fueling station.

SilasX1 hour ago

... in a world where 4channers can anonymously spray sparks at gas stations and do it for the lulz, and it costs $1000 each time you tell someone to stop smoking at the pump.

(That is, the policy is expensive, and there are numerous other hard-to-monitor causes of fires.)

eldaisfish3 hours ago

If someone views a modern electrical utility in a Western country as unreliable then they either have no idea what they are talking about or have unreasonable expectations.

See NERC's reliability report for 2020 - even accounting for fires, the average transmission capacity loss for the entire USA and Canada was mostly under 0.5%. (Page 65)

https://www.nerc.com/pa/RAPA/PA/Performance%20Analysis%20DL/...

Solar and batteries aren't a substitute for grid transmission infrastructure and cannot match the amounts of energy a good transmission grid can deliver. The best part of the grid - you don't have to worry about balancing or when you need energy. You just flip a switch.

Yes, PG&E could have done more and their investment choices led to lots of damage and loss but let's not jump the gun and term their grid unreliable. They are held to NERC's standards which are among the best in the world.

ZeroGravitas2 hours ago

I think the poster was making the subtler point that while average performance will be good, that might be heavily weighted towards those living in urban centres.

If some outlying customers switch to partial or full self sufficiency, then a utility "death spiral" can occur as they increase prices on the remaining customers in the area.

Two responses to this are:

Legally force people to stay connected and pay for the grid

Start building microgrids using distributed solar and batteries, which is apparently being done in remote Australia.

Either can be a good thing if well managed, or an inefficient boondoggle if not.

+1
eldaisfish2 hours ago
floatingatoll8 hours ago

I think there’s a big fire underway right now that PG&E thinks was probably set by two of their electrical fuses. Burying fire in dirt stops fire, so removing the power equipment from direct exposure to oxygen and tinder by burying it in dirt is a really effective way to stop electrical sparks from leveling up into wildfires.

You might send a manhole cover into near earth orbit now and then when an underground transformer explodes. As the famous saying most definitely does not go: One small leap for manhole cover, one giant leap for not celebrating your fifth anniversary of burning down ratepayer homes and national parks.

(As you might suspect, they’ve been making tidy profits every year for decades while choosing not to invest in burying power lines. The only reason there’s been such rapid change and a proper incident reaction in IT terms for an actual megacorp, is that they’re in bankruptcy court and the judge can compel them to act competently and rapidly, and shame them and penalize them for failing for the fourth year in a row to do so. Non-US folks, our power utilities are a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit, and ethical behavior that costs money is less common in for-profit ones. Co-ops are usually a good idea, but megacorps not so much.)

seanmcdirmid3 hours ago

PG&E doesn’t really make that much money from serving those more rural communities and houses where those fires are likely to occur. They subsidize those higher cost to serve areas with all the money they make in the big urban areas that aren’t at risk at all. Burying lines will just cause urban areas to subsidize urban areas even more, when there really should be some consequence for deciding to build your house in or abutting a dry forest with the need to have power brought in through that forest.

roenxi5 hours ago

I'm no accountant, but if you go bankrupt as a result of an activity then the activity likely doesn't count as profitable. Cash flow positive, yes. Profitable, no.

Profitability and bankruptcy sit in a mild opposition to each other.

michaelt5 hours ago

> if you go bankrupt as a result of an activity then the activity likely doesn't count as profitable

Unprofitable for the shareholders, maybe.

The CEO still gets to take home $6M+ [1] which sounds plenty profitable to me.

[1] https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/04/08/pge-execs-pay-raises-...

kelnos5 hours ago

PG&E is usually profitable; the cause of their bankruptcy is all the damages and fines levied as punishment for their part in starting wildfires.

mistrial918 minutes ago

what you armchair accountant aces don't know is, years ago top PG&E management found a way to take out a lot of capital and capital gains from PG&E, even though PG&E is tightly regulated. New top-level holding companies were formed. They were using this top-level capital structure to purchase other financially performing assets, like power plants in other parts of the US. This was uncovered during the ENRON blackout response.

I believe that many US companies have made distinct fortunes based just on capital asset valuations, along with some strategic sales and trades here and there. PG&E is in the center of that, being a massive landowner for its infrastructure. Second fun-fact, when California State regulators requested inventory details for things like transmission facilities, the response was "trade secret" or "homeland security" or "you will sell this info" .. basically deny, delay and deprive. So even the agencies tasked to regulate PG&E did not have complete asset inventories to refer to..

If anyone has info on the current court-ordered restructuring since the criminal negligence conviction, don't be shy !

roenxi5 hours ago

If they are found to be the cause of the fires, then this was probably a predictable outcome. If it is a predictable outcome, the accountants would probably do something like accrue a liability for causing forest fires.

They might have made a mistake about how much they accrued in the past, but going forward they wouldn't be able to call the decision profitable. It clearly wasn't.

If a business goes bankrupt, at least one of its past decisions was an unprofitable one. That is a difficult fact to escape from.

MereInterest3 hours ago

Damages and fines levied are part of the "costs" side of a balance sheet. If those costs outweigh the revenue, then the business is unprofitable. I think I can see the point you're trying to make, with a distinction between the usual running mode, and abnormal circumstances imposed from an external source. I disagree with that point, as no company exists in a vacuum. The laws and regulations of their environment may impose costs, and those are part of the cost of doing business.

galangalalgol5 hours ago

i think the fine was something like 15e9 USD. It is interesting to see what happens when financial penalties for bad corporate behavior are large relative to profits.

Bayart7 hours ago

>Burying fire in dirt stops fire

Not so fast ! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal-seam_fire

floatingatoll6 hours ago

Now I wonder if coal is more electrically conductive than dirt as well as thermally susceptible. Could you ionize a coal vein? Maybe we can transmit AM radio with it and map it with a heavy metal detector!

Bayart5 hours ago

It's carbon so there much be conditions in which it's semiconductor or conductor-like. But even if those occurred naturally, they'd have to occur consistently throughout a seam for it to be carrying radio waves. In any case coal dust should have pretty good electric capacitance. Combine with flammability...

pengaru6 hours ago

> what is the point?

Presumably the point is to bring affected parts of California back to the first world by not having to shut off their power whenever there's heavy winds expected.

sathackr3 hours ago

Because it's cheaper than paying $13.5B when it was your equipment that started it. This is nothing more than liability mitigation. And once complete, even if you don't maintain them, buried cabled generally can't start fires.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/12/06/pge-reaches...

ashtonkem2 hours ago

The biggest effect will be that they won’t have to trigger blackouts during high winds to prevent downed lines from starting forest fires. For those in the affected area, that’s a big deal.

But if CA wants to reduce these fires, they desperately need to catch back up on their controlled burns. A combination of low brush fire for decades (not forest fire!) and changing environment has built up an extremely dangerous backlog of fuel that makes CA specifically and the PNW in general a massive fire risk. Short of fixing global warming and moving everyone away from the interface between nature and city, the only solution is to burn up all that fuel in a controlled way.

bluGill2 hours ago

This doesn't apply to CA, but in general it is a good idea for most of the world.

The vegetation there has been on natural cycles for years of burning hot every few years. Sure power lines start the file, but they will start anyway: large hot fires have always been part of the life cycle of that area. This is very different from the low brush fires that are a natural part of most other forests.

ashtonkem33 minutes ago

CA has huge fires partly because they suppressed the low brush fires that were more common a century or two ago. Because they’re now decades behind on the natural burns that would normally happen every summer, the state will have to work overtime to catch back up to a safe equilibrium.

To be fair, climate change and changing habitation patterns are also making this much worse.

https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2019/11/californias-...

hnarn4 hours ago

There are many long term economical effects of burying electric, not only does it reduce exposure to liability (you caused a natural disaster), it also reduces maintenance cost, failure rates and so on. Both customers and providers prefer buried cables, all things being equal. The only issue is that they're more expensive to actually place, so maybe them causing wildfires has finally pushed companies to put the cables where they belong.

raggles2 hours ago

There are lots of good reasons distribution companies don't like cables in some situations (especially rural). Connecting new customers and network alterations is much more expensive, changing to a higher voltage is not possible, upgrading capacity requires a whole new cable which is more expensive than replacing the conductors, cables only last about 30-50 years. Finding and fixing a cable fault usually takes much longer than overhead (although there are probably less of them per mile). Without wild fires, I seriously doubt cables are more economic in rural areas.

T3OU-7363 hours ago

As a corollary - maintenance of buried power lines is more expensive due to all the digging which has to be done. Power line inspection is also trickier.

I also wonder if the unions representing linemen have a strong influence on "bury" vs "overhead" since most of lineman's job involves work up a pole rather than a tunnel.

Lastly - burying anything in the ground in areas where the ground has been known to move (California is the "Earthquake" entry in the Bingo game of "choose which natural disaster" that is the continental USA) is liable to be a non-trivial endeavour, one which will require ongoing inspections and the like.

zild3d5 hours ago

> how much can we expect this to reduce the frequency of wildfires?

A point to keep in mind here, PGE is a company. Their primary goal is to not be the cause of the wildfire and pay damages. If it also reduces the frequency of wildfires, great.

cascom2 hours ago

The point is that it increases profitability of the utility (by expanding the rate base), and so the customers are paying for it. If they get some good publicity and it marginally decreases fire risk those are secondary benefits.

xyzzyz8 hours ago

If only conditions matter, but triggers do not, why don’t all forests catch fire all at the same time when it gets dry enough? Think about it: average forest in California will probably get dry enough to support forest fire at least every few years. Why then it takes decades or centuries until the fire actually visits them?

Someone29 minutes ago

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_triangle: “a fire needs to ignite: heat, fuel, and an oxidizing agent (usually oxygen)”

There also always is plenty of oxygen. In dry summers, there’s also plenty of fuel. What’s lacking is sufficient heat. The ignition temperature of wood is difficult to assess, but wood can start burning at 125°C ≈ 256°F (https://www.warrenforensics.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/P...)

It doesn’t get that hot without help, e.g. from a campfire, a magnifying glass, or sparks from electricity.

chongli8 hours ago

Triggers are necessary for fires, obviously, but getting rid of the triggers does not solve the problem. There's another wrinkle to the whole matter: when a forest survives the dry season without burning down it doesn't reset. The following year there will be even more dead wood and other dry material in the area. This means next year's potential fire will be even worse than the last.

carabiner8 hours ago

One step at a time. Forest management is a huge issue. Wildland firefighters are zealous, almost paramilitary organizations that try to vanquish every fire like enemy invaders. In reality, fires are part of the lifecycle of forests that clear brush and make the forest healthier and more resilient in the future.

+1
GavinMcG6 hours ago
+2
FooHentai6 hours ago
citrin_ru3 hours ago

There is a limit on how much dry wood a forest can accumulate. At some point old dead wood will rot and become soil. Though in dry climate rotting is slow.

mongol7 hours ago

That is interesting. I thought rain reset the conditions.

thirtyseven7 hours ago

Rain can make it worse by adding more growth that then dries out and becomes fuel.

rexreed2 hours ago

The point is to avoid lawsuits not wildfires.

boulos8 hours ago

One distinction versus naturally caused fires (like lightning) is that power lines are often downed by high winds over dry terrain. Lightning, usually, is accompanied by a storm so there’s at least some rain.

It’s not going to stop everything, nor all human-caused fires (e.g., the “gender reveal” one last year), but I believe it shifts the likelihood more than you expect.

nemesisj2 hours ago

My guess is that fire prevention is only part of the problem. Wouldn't burying the lines mean that their infrastructure is also not destroyed by wild fires? Things just burn above, and everything keeps on working?

giantg22 hours ago

"To deflect blame from PGE?"

I think that's the major part. It will look good for them from an ESG perspective. Also, I think some states, like CA, are talking about making the company pay for any fire starting from their equipment. So they are probably hedging that risk. If they wait, it could take them too long to complete the burial and then still be subjected to penalties under new laws in the future.

Edit: why downvote? These steps may reduce a small percentage of wildfires (10% from electric utilities and PG&E isn't the only one). I think the main reasons they are doing it are what I stated about. I doubt the company truly cares about this unless it reduced the financial risk and helped them in the ESG space.

jlmorton8 hours ago

I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's not entirely insignificant, but it certainly is not the driver of wildfires. If we perfectly buried all the power lines, we'd have fewer fires, but we'd still have most of the fires we already have.

The primary problem remains fire suppression practices, forest management, and changing climate. This seems like a very expensive way to eliminate a quarter of our wildfires.

completelylegit7 hours ago

As someone who lives 15 miles from Paradise, CA - A “very expensive solution” makes it sound like there are inexpensive solutions that would be just as effective. If there were, wouldn’t PGE have implemented them?

Maybe its just “the solution”.

habibur7 hours ago

PGE is more concerned about the billion dollar law suites. This solution makes economic sense to them.

But doesn't help the fire. As long the dry woods are piling up, which it eventually will, something else will trigger the fire. And amount of fire won't be even reduce by 25%.

But the court won't be able to blame PGE then, that's the whole point.

brazzy6 hours ago

This, exactly. A PGE power line probably sparked the deadly Paradise fire, and I've repeadly see people blaming them for the deaths with metaphorical pitch forks in hand, completely ignoring the far more complex reasons for people being unable to get away from that fire safely.

bbarnett7 hours ago

In Quebec, Hydro Quebec trims trees and shrubbery from wires every summer.

This is much, much cheaper than burying them, and they hire students going into forest, and related fields to assist with the work (heavily supervised).

It is not even remotely hard to believe that Quebec has far, far more rural power lines than California.

What's the difference? State run organizations like Hydro Quebec, are IMO not apt to create short term profits, by sacrificing long term cost saving measures. There is no CEO of Hydro Quebec getting a massive boost to income via stock profits, or awards due to profit targets met.

The goal is instead, make delivery the safest and most cost effective over the long term.

By burying wires, I suspect it achieves two things. Ensuring a CEO, or department head won't cost save for a bonus, and not trim wires, and to maybe do a one time write down.

To highlight this?

I accidentally had a tree fall the wrong way (I has ropes too, one slipped) during a cut. Hydro Quebec came and cut the tree from the wires, restored power, for free.

In Ontario, where power is private now? I would have paid thousands.

Why the difference? The loss of life, because someone tries to save money and deal with it themselves, isn't worth it. Especially when state paid health care, and disability exists.

I'm 100% a capitalist. Yet some things make sense, run as a non profit, where costs are counter to societal safety and goals.

gruez2 hours ago

>What's the difference? State run organizations like Hydro Quebec, are IMO not apt to create short term profits, by sacrificing long term cost saving measures. There is no CEO of Hydro Quebec getting a massive boost to income via stock profits, or awards due to profit targets met.

Not really. While it's true that a state run organizations might not cut costs to meet profits, that's just replaced with cutting to meet budget requirements. eg. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/18/nyregion/new-york-subway-...

refurb4 hours ago

PG&E might have private investors but it doesn’t do anything with the Public Utility Commissions oversight.

And they trim trees in CA too, but unlike QC which is typically green in the summer, CA is typically full of dry vegetation and a spark in the grass is still going to start a massive fire.

nraynaud5 hours ago

Be mindful that it's not exactly the number or size of the fire they are optimizing for, but the cost.

And I guess some smaller fires might cost a lot, if they are near rich people's estates.

an_opabinia8 hours ago

There's no point, you're right. On the other hand, there is no money shortage. I wish the government ordered PG&E to make poles ready for fiber instead.

abricot6 hours ago

Makes more sense to put down fiber with the power cables. Why would you want to it on poles?

Proven8 hours ago

Who pays? What do you think?

abeppu8 hours ago

How do other places with dry forested areas deal with this? Are there similar regions from which California should be learning?

Also, if we get a major earthquake, are they going to have to dig all the lines up again?

Also, can we just note how crazy it is that this company blew up a neighborhood, burned down a town, was convicted in these separate incidents, and is still allowed to have a monopoly on power for a broad region? Why are corporate convicts apparently treated so well, but natural persons who are convicted are treated so poorly?

stickfigure8 hours ago

Those places burn too.

You want electricity, right? PG&E is one way to get it. You could replace the people in charge, you could replace the owners, you could even nationalize the whole thing and you still have the same problem: Vast amounts of incredibly expensive, aging infrastructure, drying climate, and homes built into the wildland boundary interface.

There's no magic trick that will solve this problem. The money for electrical upgrades will have to come from taxpayers and/or ratepayers; there isn't anyone else. And it will only reduce the probabilities of big fires. The huge Carr fire in Redding was started by sparks from a towed trailer. The LNU complex last year was lightning (plus one guy trying to cover up a murder with arson). It's not all electrical... probably not even a majority.

MiguelX4136 hours ago

Just take the money from the profits lol

vkou6 hours ago

There won't be any profits if they actually go ahead and fix it. You'd have to claw it back from prior shareholders who benefited from that unethical behaviour.

triggercut8 hours ago

Perth's metropolitan region in Western Australia has the largest percentage of underground power in the world. Granted, a large portion is in suburban areas and I suspect entirely in the distribution network not the transmission network. It's climate is very similar to much of California.

Power infrastructure on this magnitude requires an extraordinary amount of capital investment to set up. Who takes on their debt? The operating expenses for asset management and maintenance of a mature network are eyewatering when compared to their underground counterparts as there is a lot more numerous and frequent replacement activity for parts. Pole infrastructure may have a life span of 10-15 years but some parts will be replaced out every 3-5. Before you know it you pay for every pole 4 times over it's life. Now multiply that by several hundred thousand poles in a large network and then you start to get the picture. I'm not trying to be an apologist but I'm surprised from what I hear of American infrastructure that it's not a far more regular occurrence.

Denvercoder92 hours ago

> Perth's metropolitan region in Western Australia has the largest percentage of underground power in the world.

I highly doubt that. Their government claims about 55% of houses has underground power. There's parts of Europe where they're easily up to 90%+. For example in the Netherlands only (part of) the high-voltage transmission network is above-ground, all house connections are underground.

raggles2 hours ago

Your numbers are way out, poles usually last between 25 and 70 years generally depending on what they are made from. Hardware (pins, insulators, crossarms) last at least 15 years usually, often much longer. There is certainly nothing that needs replacing every 3-5 years.

moistly8 hours ago

BC is currently burning to the ground. Again. I don’t think our hydro grid has failed due to forest fires, or at least not commonly. Nor is it responsible for starting them. Our territory must surely be as rugged as California’s. So maybe look North?

anonAndOn8 hours ago

Don't forget the company also poisoned an entire town.[0]

[0]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinkley,_California

thedougd4 hours ago

Take the opportunity to burry empty conduit with it and lease it to telcos.

agilob2 hours ago

I don't know technicalities, but we have this in Wales. There are tunnels on top of which we have railways. The tunnels have power cables and fiberoptic cables. Sometimes they flood in west-mid Wales, last I know and remember was 2012 and we (Aberystwyth, Machynlleth) route internet traffic to North Wales or Ireland instead to Birmingham.

thedougd2 hours ago

In my region, they mostly run this new, flexible plastic conduit with horizontal borers or a piercing tool. They'll dig holes several feet deep and dozens of feet apart. In one hole they start this tool and it digs its way horizontally to the next hole. From what I've seen, the conduit effortlessly follows. I'm sure geology makes a difference.

Here's a marketing video for one of these piercing tools: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=26&v=Hs3C2LMzSPg

dd362 hours ago

Good idea. Maybe even get The Boring Company to make usable tunnels.

repiret7 hours ago

I was under the impression that the higher dielectric permittivity of soil made it impractical to bury AC transmission lines. Are they switching to DC while they're at it? Is there some other solution? Are the problems caused by high permittivity overblown?

AriedK3 hours ago

https://research.tudelft.nl/en/publications/technical-perfor... Good read if you're interested in the technicalities. They do bury high voltage (380kV) AC lines, sometimes even construct a tunnel for them, but I doubt they'll do that in this case.

sunstone3 hours ago

I was wondering the same thing. HVDC is 'an under the radar' technology that is set to rework a lot of the grid world wide. With projects underway to send power from Australia to Singapore or Iceland to the UK it's likely to turn up in many places, even California.

unishark6 hours ago

Very possible, unless there's some other trick nowadays. AC does not go far underground or under water, but high voltage DC can be used for much longer distances.

thedougd2 hours ago

Some coastal communities and islands in North Carolina took this route. In addition to beautification, they're more resilient to storms and hurricanes.

https://www.starnewsonline.com/article/NC/20071122/News/6051...

boringg48 minutes ago

I assume the liability costs far outweigh costs to upgrade/operational costs. Likely will ratebase a bunch of this work as well. That and they might just get kicked of business by the CPUC if they didn't manage their risk profiles more effectively.

rmason9 hours ago

I have what I think is a legitimate question. Wouldn't it be an order of magnitude cheaper just to clear all the trees 120 feet either side of the power line? Plant the cleared land to alfalfa and solicit bids from farmers to harvest it every year.

dfsegoat9 hours ago

What you describe is essentially the program they had in place already. Maybe not 120 feet, but certainly some distance. They hire contract helicopters year round to survey lines, and task crews to clear brush. I live in Sonoma County, CA [1,2,3] - so we see the effort.

I think you might also be underestimating the scale of the power infrastructure in CA. The hydro etc. power generators in the north of the state are located in extremely remote areas.

My brother was a consulting engineer for PG&E in Northern CA, on a lot of their Hydropower infrastructure - most of the generation sites were only accessible by humans with helicopter flights, or 2-3 hr drives on poorly maintained roads. The transmission lines are not really accessible except by helicopter survey.

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNU_Lightning_Complex_fires

2 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass_Fire

3 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tubbs_Fire

SOMA_BOFH8 hours ago

it may be hard work but it's necessary.

zombie3578 hours ago

As someone who can see the Dixie fire column daily, had family evac’d by the Bear fire last year (basically burned 100K+ acre area just SW of the Dixie), and lives 10 minutes from Paradise (the town mentioned in the article), most of the PGE right-of-ways do look like freeways now through the forest, little to no under story growth. I believe they’re limited to how far out they can go due to easements.

To add, basically the last 4 years has been the burnout of a huge swath of forest in this area between the Camp fire, Bear fire, and now the Dixie fire, not to mention the many “small” fires that were caught/didn’t get established. The majority of land between highway 32 to the La Porte/Quincy highway has burned. Don’t have a good estimate since I’m on my phone, but 100s of square miles of mostly back country forest. Both the Camp and Bear fires made 10-15 mile runs in one day, and Dixie’s put up massive pyrocumulonimbus pretty much every day this week.

Edit to add: it’s also been incredibly dry, most of June-July has been upper 90s-low 100s, with a few 110+ periods. Humidity has also been extremely low, in the afternoons 8-12%. Even overnight it only recovers up to 40-45%. Higher elevations are cooler, but not so much that it mitigates, so the forest is pretty tinderbox right now. Once it’s lit it’s hard to put out.

dntrkv2 hours ago

Plumas Forest is one of my favorite parts of CA to explore, so these fires have been difficult to watch. My favorite place to camp is this remote spot on the Feather River, luckily it hasn’t been touched by the fires yet, but it’s only a matter of time now I guess. Do you own property out there? If so, what kinds of things have you done to your property to prepare for the now seemingly inevitable?

tjr2258 hours ago

…and? Why did you create an account 27 minutes ago to post this? Sincerely curious.

nostrademons8 hours ago

S/he has useful and relevant information to add to the discussion. Why not?

shmageggy3 hours ago

The only relevant part out of the whole multi paragraph thing was this one sentence

> most of the PGE right-of-ways do look like freeways now through the forest, little to no under story growth.

I read the whole thing waiting for a point but there wasn't one. Just a waste of time. We already know the fires are bad, and that isn't relevant to the thread anyways.

coding12335 minutes ago

Did you have a first post too?

nightfly7 hours ago

There are several (many?) posters on here who create a new throwaway account every time they say anything

garmaine7 hours ago

Or maybe just one.

carpdiem9 hours ago

Not really. Trees are actually somewhat hard to burn, so most wildfires start by catching dry underbrush on fire instead. So in this case, that would just be the alfalfa.

Key to remember is that power lines can spark when they're damaged by winds (which can lead to the lines themselves being close enough to the ground for the spark to traverse to the underbrush).

Animats8 hours ago

This is for what utilities call "medium voltage" distribution (1KV to 35KV), not high tension towers. These are the cables you see around your neighborhood, upstream of the pole transformer. They're usually not insulated other than by airspace. Clearcutting around those would wipe out the trees in most residential areas.

The big high tension towers go through clear-cut rights of way.

The big headache is not burying cable. If there's nothing else in the ground, that's not too hard. It's working around water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, driveways, phone, data, cable TV...

smt889 hours ago

That would destroy thousands of miles of wildlife habitat, and it would certainly cover some private property too.

Plus you'd have to do it regularly, not once.

lazide9 hours ago

Probably not. A lot of this land is in remote areas with no irrigation, steep, rocky, or otherwise difficult to manage.

No one is interested in farming alfalfa on 25% slopes with rocks 6” under any topsoil and massive trees to clear before it would even be usable.

breck9 hours ago

Love it! My vision of the future has all power lines buried. Mostly thinking in the cities but fire prevention is a plus as well.

If anyone has any leads on startups or innovators in the tunneling space please share or each out!

baxinho03128 hours ago

Burying high voltage power lines presents several technical challenges on its own - the type and thickness of the insulation had to be able to withstand the dielectric stress which is normally solved by using enough distance between the wires themselves and the ground for the typical high voltage power line. Another problem is increased capacitive load due to the higher capacitance of the lines which causes problems/completely makes the switchgear to not be able to perform switching/breaking operations. Capacitive load then needs to be compensated to improve the networks power factor, cos phi. This is typically done by introducing expensive equipment to the network configuration like shunt reactors or static synchronous compensators. It is also typically more expensive to have and maintain a underground cable than an overhead power line

thaumaturgy5 hours ago

Two more issues are water tables (although those have been falling rapidly across much of California over the last few years) and seismic activity -- not just the big quake sort, but also the usual few cm a year of movement in opposite directions sort.

I suspect that this is going to be an engineering project on the scale of the mythical California high-speed rail, and with the same life cycle. PG&E especially has a track record of misusing funds for upgrades and maintenance.

leecb9 hours ago

> My vision of the future has all power lines buried.

Singapore already has already achieved this. It's actually quite pleasant to not have any overhead lines.

They are currently replacing the main electricity distribution cables that run under roads, and replacing them with a system that runs in tunnels 60m underground. This depth is necessary to avoid other systems like the subway(MRT) that run at shallower depths. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/deepest-tunnels-spore-...

lorenzhs6 hours ago

This is not some magical high-tech vision that only exists in Singapore. It's been this way for many decades in built-up areas of most of Western Europe -- mostly it's just overland high-voltage lines that are above ground. My grandfather used to tell the story of how his American visitors were always curious where the power in his house came from (this was probably in the 60s or 70s) and amazed when he showed them the connection in the basement. It amused him to no end.

82% of Germany's power lines are buried: https://www.iwr.de/ticker/lange-leitungen-82-prozent-der-str... (in German). This figure includes everything from low-voltage lines to houses to high-voltage distribution lines.

seanmcdirmid2 hours ago

Many urban areas in the USA have buried power lines. I moved last year from Bellevue WA to Ballard in Seattle WA, one of the first things I noticed in my new home are all the power lines around us (they are mostly buried in Bellevue and much of the east side). Fairly sure the Bay Area is roughly the same (Palo Alto must right?), but I don’t have any anecdotes to go on.

breck8 hours ago

Fascinating. Thanks for the link! I remember from a visit to Singapore a decade ago the fantastic subway and all the underground malls, but had no idea how advanced their tunnels were. Thanks!

baxinho03128 hours ago

Works for distribution networks for households in the cities, but but for high voltage transmission lines.

maCDzP8 hours ago

If you are interested in this space you can just search for “trenchless electrical conduit”. A company that makes a lot of equipment is https://www.herrenknecht.com/en/

jlmorton9 hours ago

I mean, obviously everyone desires to have the power lines buried, the issue is that it costs something like $250 billion dollars to do it in California alone.

grecy5 hours ago

When talking visions of the future, aim higher - get rid of the power lines altogether.

Every building should have it's entire footprint as solar panels, and enough batteries to last the night. Imagine all the money saved on power lines and maintenance of them. Especially in sunny California this is a no-brainier.

gizmondo4 hours ago

That saves no money at all, because you still need it for the cloudy day or week.

zbrozek4 hours ago

Or use a generator when that happens. At my place that would be a week or two per year.

randmeerkat9 hours ago
goler9 hours ago

Are the associated costs passed to ratepayers at cost or is there some allowance for a positive investment return for PG&E shareholders?

bcrosby959 hours ago

In theory rate hikes have to go through California regulators but, at the same time, the company is allowed a certain rate of return.

In practice I have no clue how it works out though.

tomrod9 hours ago

Typically in markets like CA and TX you will have a rate case go to the public utility commission. I'm more familiar with Texas' approach (it was a data source for my dissertation); the idea is to let the companies charge enough to cover reasonable costs.

black_puppydog8 hours ago

Shouldn't "won't be sued for negligence" cover the investment, given that they know their equipment is a fire hazard?

jlmorton8 hours ago

No, it won't, because PG&E doesn't have the money to do this, and the company is already majority-owned by the PG&E Fire Victim Trust after emerging from bankruptcy.

There are no rich shareholders to foist the costs on. No investors are going to pay tens of billions of dollars, more profit than PG&E generated over several decades, to pay for 10% of the electric wires to be buried. If there were any investors on the hook for this, they would simply declare bankruptcy and walk away.

The only option here is that the costs are paid by ratepayers, or taxpayers. There is no other option available.

black_puppydog8 hours ago

I see, thanks for explaining. That would have made for a nice addition to the article. :)

IMHO an infrastructure of this size & importance might just as well be state owned, but I guess rate hikes will also do. As long as there is some mechanism to help (yes, probably with tax money) those who might not be able to afford them...

amotinga8 hours ago

in that case why have owners at all? it should basically be nationalized then. otherwise taxpayer paying the cost without really reaping profits (if there are/will be any)

+1
stickfigure8 hours ago
IgorPartola8 hours ago

A federal grant might work too. Wildfires on this scale affect more than just Californians.

refurb8 hours ago

I can’t find it now but a while back someone posted the meeting minutes from the CA PUC review of PG&E’s budget. It had stuff like “request to replace chain link fence for $175k - denied” and it was a 1,000+ page document.

PG&E has to get approval for their spend from the PUC and for any rate hikes.

giantg22 hours ago

So what burial equipment or service providers do we buy calls on?

kumarvvr9 hours ago

We are beginning to see the real costs of Global warming, the exact thing activists were bull horning about and the same thing corporations were denying.

nickysielicki8 hours ago

https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IF10244.pdf

https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/mckelvey/mckelvey3.pd...

Look at figure 41.2 in the second pdf.

Wildfires are not historically worse than they have ever been. You're falling victim to recency bias. You can absolutely credibly claim that wildfires are not more or less common than they have been historically, it's all in the noise. The activists have not been proven right, and the corporations have not been proven wrong.

edit: note that I'm not denying the existence of climate change nor denying that it may eventually have an effect on forest fires. I'm merely claiming that the data does not support what you're saying.

kumarvvr8 hours ago

Even a cursory reading of both the documents that you present shows the following points.

1. While the number of fires have reduced, the total area consumed by fires is still rising. 2. The average area fired up is increasing at an alarming rate (Fig. 41.3, still upto 2000 only.) Refer the first document. Fig. I, the trend in forest fire area affected is increasing, from about 2 million acres in 1990 to about 10 million acres in 2020.

Also, fig 41.2 is data from 1908 to 1988.

Edit : Please see the 10 million acre figure in the first PDF. Think of the enormous costs related to containing the fire. The data is not in isolation. Fire-fighting techniques and costs have to be taken into account.

https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/2015-Fire-Budget...

This document from US govt explains how much they are spending fighting forest fires. Budget for wildfire management rose from 15% in 1995 to about 52% in 2015, with more increase projected upto 2025.

Also, the cost of wildfires is enormous.

https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-medi...

boulos8 hours ago

I’m going to assume good faith, but Figure 41.2 only has data through 1992 (the paper is from 1995). 30-ish years of hotter, drier seasons might change that picture.

In fact, Figure 1 in your first pdf says just that: the “count” of fires is similar to that in 1991, but the area burned has more than tripled.

That is what people are talking about: the past few years have had mega fires and “complex fires”.

wonnage8 hours ago

On top of the other responses, I don't think the two sources use comparable data to begin with. The first source says that there were ~2m acres burned in both of 1991 and 1992, whereas the latter peaks at 100 k/ha, which converts to about 240k acres, nowhere near 2m.

kumarvvr7 hours ago

The second document is only related to forest service. Does not include other types of lands.

mikewarot9 hours ago

Mostly we're seeing the costs of not managing forest in a sustainable manner. But, yes, climate change is making that stupidity worse.

shusaku9 hours ago

The costs of not managing forests well, the costs of building cities so close to the ocean, the cost of growing food in what is now a desert, the cost of having population centers in areas which reach 50 degrees in the summer, global warming is going to “uncover” quite a lot of costs.

Trias119 hours ago

That's why i left CA.

Hard pressed to find more fraudulent state.

elygre9 hours ago

Where is the fraud in this context?

Trias119 hours ago

Where tax money goes? Hair gel?

It's one of the highest taxed state in US with raising crime, poverty, filth, dying cluture, political hipocrisy and accelerating exodus to lower taxed states.

arcticbull9 hours ago

I mean, some of that is true, some is false - the question remains though, what does that have to do with the burying of electric lines to prevent fires?

caymanjim9 hours ago

What does any of that have to do with PG&E?

notafraudster9 hours ago

Hypocrisy is spelled with a "y", not an "i", as the second letter.

Trias118 hours ago

You passed the test.

Ata boy.

totetsu9 hours ago

Hipocrisy is spelled with a "y", not an "i", as the second letter.

wombatpm9 hours ago

When you look at their track record with buried gas lines, I’m not sure this will be the safety fix they think it will be

wonnage9 hours ago

power lines don't explode like gas lines

lazide9 hours ago

They can if the right conditions are met - see ‘arc flash’

disillusioned9 hours ago

That is still, you know, categorically not exploding like a gas line, which, you know, in recent memory blew an entire neighborhood of 38 homes off the map. Hitting a buried line with a backhoe is unpleasant enough, sure, but you're not destroying dozens of buildings in one go.

supperburg9 hours ago

Exactly. Gas can leak and build up for hours or days, slowly accumulating enough chemical energy to create a massive explosion. At least hypothetically. And there are huge explosions on record as you point out.

An electric line is not even in the same category. Any comparison is silly and ignorant.

Google2349 hours ago

The $30 billion in unemployment benefits that California lost to fraud to could have completely solved this crisis…

grumblenum30 minutes ago

The most insightful comment is also the most downvoted. What did HN mean by this?

rexreed2 hours ago

This is true, although PG&E is still a private company, so I don't think the government can take over the job of being the utility in this case.

ardit339 hours ago

And build more than 1/3 or the high speed rail!

WalterBright8 hours ago

In the Pacific NW, I'd settle for a train that managed to average 60mph.

The PNW used to be well served with trains. Now - the government has destroyed most of the right-of-way. What's left is still being destroyed at a rate of maybe 2 miles for every new mile of track laid.

They decided the Battery tunnel wasn't good enough anymore. So they dug a new tunnel. What to do with the excavated rubble - why stuff it in the old Battery tunnel, rendering it unusable.

The government likes to buy tunnel boring machines. What do they do when finishing a tunnel? Why, the sell the zillion dollar machine for scrap! After all, what spends money faster than buying a new boring machine for the next tunnel!

kayfox6 minutes ago

Tunnel boring machines are somewhat consumable, the cutting head and outside of the machine erodes over time and they have a service lifetime of the few years they spend boring the tunnel.

Bertha spent a lot of time working and had to be spectacularly dug up to deal with excessive wear on the mechanisms, so by time it emerged in SLU it was at the end of its service lifetime.

Sound Transit has been rebuilding and reusing their machines.

toast08 hours ago

> They decided the Battery tunnel wasn't good enough anymore. So they dug a new tunnel. What to do with the excavated rubble - why stuff it in the old Battery tunnel, rendering it unusable.

What did you want done with that tunnel? I think it had earthquake issues separately from the viaduct, and without the viaduct, I'm not sure how useful the tunnel would be anyway. Stuffing it with the rubble reduces the cost of rubble disposal and fills the tunnel without the cost of fill dirt or whatever. The new tunnel is definitely nicer than the old one, but I don't drive around seattle enough to know if it has the same utility.

> The government likes to buy tunnel boring machines. What do they do when finishing a tunnel? Why, the sell the zillion dollar machine for scrap! After all, what spends money faster than buying a new boring machine for the next tunnel!

I'm not sure how reusable these machines are; they kind of all come in different sizes and have customized needs, and they're hard to store. Can't just leave them halfway through the tunnel for years....

But yeah, Seattle loves tunnels almost as much as Kitsap traffic engineering departments love traffic circles, but Seattle has a bigger budget.

WalterBright7 hours ago

The claim was that the old Battery tunnel had earthquake issues. I don't believe it would have been more expensive to put a liner in than bore a new tunnel with a liner. What use to put it to? More capacity! Could have run light rail through it. Made it a bike tunnel. Make it a pedestrian mall.

The big cost of boring tunnels is the boring machine. At minimum, they could have simply kept right on boring. Doubtless Seattle could use a lot more tunnels for mass transit. Seattle has a terrible right-of-way problem, mainly because they wrecked all the rail right-of-way.

I don't see the issue with just storing it at the end of the tunnel. It wouldn't be long before it was clear another tunnel would be needed.

+1
mjevans6 hours ago
adanto68409 hours ago

Is this true (the railway cost)? Which rail specifically, what destinations/points does it service -- any link/source? Not doubting you by any means, just interested in more information.

Edit: Ty -- interesting.

ardit339 hours ago

The whole thing is estimated to be around $80-90B (probably more, given the current inflation).

With the money already allocated, plus if they had managed not to waste 25B out of that 30B (and the fraud was only 5b), they would have had enough money to get at least half of it done....

Get a major piece of infrastructure done, and help with global warming/emissions goals.

But, no. Not in Cali. And that's why nothing gets build. Sheer, Government waste at work... The state is being led by trust-fund babies, that found everything ready, and never had to work for it, and they are just squandering all that fortune.

jazzyjackson9 hours ago

Are concrete pours managed by the mob out there? Curious that the elevated concrete aqueduct is the only thing they’re making progress on.

+1
thaumasiotes9 hours ago
reissbaker9 hours ago
gogopuppygogo9 hours ago

Don’t even start looking into the public sector pension fund bailouts…

bpodgursky9 hours ago

This is factually true.