The Need for Underground Electrical Transmission Lines As the the Fires Rage–Again and Again–Across California

DWP was working on the power lines at Sunset Boulevard and Temescal on October 27, the day before the Getty Fire broke out in Brentwood. That fire was blamed on a branch on the electrical line.

The frequent question, “Why can’t electric utility lines be buried?” was answered by a Circling the News reader, who wrote:

“The simple answer is the cost of installation.  The $1,000 per linear foot you and your husband were quoted twenty-five years ago is probably double that now, but depending on the terrain, soil, etc. underground installation is five to eight times the cost of overhead wiring.

“There are also additional costs in maintaining underground cable and a huge danger if uninformed digging in the area of the underground wires is done, but there are upsides such as aesthetics and less vulnerability to weather related interruptions.

“However, I have not often heard of fires being caused by local wiring; usually that is an issue with higher voltage transmission lines coming into contact with tall pine trees and other dry, flammable foliage.

“When you find underground wiring in a subdivision or area such as the Huntington or the Highlands it is because it was installed by the developer(s).

“Putting electric wiring in the same trench as gas lines, and telephone and cable lines, is cost effective because the developer is just dealing with the incremental costs above putting in the gas lines. Then the developer recovers the costs through the sale of the lots. Obviously, retrofitting above-ground utility services to underground is much more expensive and someone has to pay those costs.

“Municipal utilities, such LADWP, have the political problem that they can’t retrofit wiring to underground conduit for one neighborhood without doing it for all, so charging the neighborhood for the costs if all neighbors agree is the logical, and maybe only, option,” the reader wrote.

According to the Sacramento Bee, the fires that destroyed large areas of Northern California in 2017, which were caused by  faulty transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), may end up exceeding $2.5 billion in claims, with property damages alone possibly topping $10 million.

The Wall Street Journal, in a October 25 editorial headlined  “Fires and Blackouts Made in Sacramento,” noted that Governor Gavin Newsom blames the blackouts and the aging infrastructure to PG&E utilities mismanagement.

But the WSJ countered that “The state Public Utilities Commission is in charge of enforcing state safety laws and regulations, which can carry penalties of up to $50,000 per violation per day. Yet PG&E received no safety fines related to its power-grid management over the last several years. The commission has instead focused on enforcing the Legislature’s climate mandates.”

The WSJ detailed where PG&E has spent money: “For instance, the Legislature in 2015 mandated that utilities spend $100 million annually on solar systems in low-income communities. This is on top of the $2.2 billion in customer rebates for rooftop solar installations, which utilities charged to ratepayers between 2007 and 2016.

“Last year PG&E invested more than $150 million in battery storage and ‘sustainable’ technologies, which was paid for by a special charge on ratepayers. PG&E is also spending $130 million over three years to install 7,500 electric-car charging stations and offers drivers a $800 ‘clean fuel’ rebate.”

Senate Bill 100, sponsored by state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), which became law in September 2018, requires the state to obtain all of its electricity from clean sources — such as solar, wind and hydropower — by 2045. That legislation did not specify how the state would achieve that goal.

So what is the California Legislature doing about fires caused by electrical utility companies?

Assembly Bill 281, introduced on January 28 (amended April 22) to add to Section 761.2 of  the Public Utilities Code, would require the Public Utilities Commission to require electrical corporations to develop and administer programs to replace overhead electric facilities along public streets and roads, and on other public or private properties in high fire threat districts, as determined by the PUC, with underground electric facilities.

Another bill, AB 1609, would require the Public Utilities Commission to direct each electrical corporation and gas corporation to file an application for programs to provide financial assistance to owners of residential properties in fire-prone areas within their respective service territories to install improvements to reduce or eliminate wildfire impacts on those properties or to purchase emergency equipment or supplies for use in case of a de-energization event.

Other proposed California legislative action regarding fire safety includes:

SB 99 (“General Plans: Safety Element: Emergency Evacuation Routes”) which would require the city or county to review and update the safety element to include information identifying residential developments in hazard areas that do not have at least two emergency evacuation routes. (This bill affects several areas of Pacific Palisades—Sunset Mesa, Highlands, Castellammare and Paseo Miramar.)

AB 38 (“Fire Safety: Low-Cost Retrofits: Regional Capacity Review: Wildfire Mitigation”) would require the seller of any real property located in a high or very high fire hazard severity zone to provide a prescribed disclosure notice to the buyer, if the home was constructed before January 1, 2020, of information relating to fire hardening improvements on the property and a list of specified features that may make the home vulnerable to wildfire and flying embers and which features, if any, that exist on the home of which the seller is aware.

SB 182 (“General Plans: Safety Element”) would require a city or county that contains a very high fire risk area to amend the land-use element of its general plan to contain the locations of all very high fire risk areas within the city or county and feasible implementation measures designed to carry out specified goals, objectives, and policies relating to the protection of lives and property from unreasonable risk of wildfire.

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