Utilities say there’s no one best way to safeguard the millions of miles of
Overall, electrical outages caused by bad weather cost the
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
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
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
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
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.
Instead of accepting the concrete poles, Palm Beach’s residents narrowly voted in 2017 to pay for a
“There’s big benefits,” said
In some places, burying the electrical lines is all but physically impossible, utilities and others argue.
In parts of California’s
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.”
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
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
That’s less than one-10th of the utility’s existing overhead lines, however.
In the meantime,
Gecker contributed from