A plume of smoke rises above the Camp Fire as it moves through the area on November 8, 2018 in Paradise, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
California has always had wildfires. Like earthquakes or drought, they’re part of living in this state. Lightning starts some of our wildfires, and careless people start others. But over the last several years, a lot of fires have been started by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the power company serving 5.1 million households all over Central and Northern California.
In just two-and-a-half years the utility’s equipment started more than fifteen-hundred fires, a Wall Street Journal investigation found. Some of those were small, but others were deadly, like the 2018 Camp Fire, which burned the town of Paradise to the ground and killed 85 people. The Camp Fire caused about $16.5 billion in damages.
Bay Curious listener Sally Swope has been watching all this news unfold. It sparked a question: “I wanted to know why PG&E doesn’t just bury their lines. There are so many [law]suits against them, and it seems like it would be more economical if they just buried their lines.”
We’re going to answer Sally’s question and explore a few other common questions people have about how PG&E got so big and what can be done to make their system safer.
“You have kind of a tradeoff to look at,” says UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor Sascha von Meier. “When power lines are underground, if and when something does go wrong, it’s a lot harder to find where the problem is and go fix it. So that then takes longer, and costs more to do.”
Underground lines can be affected by earthquakes or malfunction for other reasons. PG&E would have to dig up the street to find and fix the problem. Getting them underground in the first place is also expensive. PG&E estimates it costs $3 million dollars per circuit mile, and the company has over 100,000 miles of distribution and transmission lines.
“It quickly becomes prohibitively expensive,” says Nathaniel Skinner, safety program expert at the CPUC Public Advocates Office. “People are paying a lot for their electricity service right now. There's a lot of people who can't afford the utility bills. At what point does electricity service become unaffordable? And that starts to introduce all sorts of health and safety impacts.”
Skinner estimates that if PG&E were to bury only its overhead lines in high fire threat areas it would cost ratepayers anywhere between $55 billion to $144 billion dollars. To put that in perspective, Skinner says, all of PG&E’s current assets are worth about $50 billion. So putting just the most fire prone lines underground would cost as much or more than PG&E is worth. And, even if we assume the low end of the range, the average ratepayer could pay eight-times as much per year.
The cost is a big reason why utilities are much more likely to put power lines underground in a new development, especially if the city or homeowners help shoulder the cost. PG&E has also put power lines underground in pilot projects, or after catastrophes. When the Oakland Hills fire devastated the East Bay in 1991, homeowners pushed PG&E to rebuild the distribution network underground. Similar pressure from residents in Paradise prompted PG&E to commit to undergrounding 200 miles of power lines in and around the town as it rebuilds.
Using PG&E’s $3 million per mile estimate, a rough back-of-the napkin calculation says the 200 miles around Paradise will cost about $460 million. A hefty price tag. But it’s still a bargain when you realize the Camp Fire caused about $16.5 billion dollars in damages.
Are There Cheaper Ways To Make the Power Grid Safer?
Beyond burying power lines, there are other ways to prevent wildfires.
1) Keep better records. The power grid is old and needs constant maintenance. PG&E hasn’t replaced some of its infrastructure in over a hundred years, part of the reason it has had so many equipment failures. Better record keeping and a more robust inspection and quality control program would go a long way, some say. Without good records, PG&E won’t know where there are safety risks.
2) Upgrade key equipment. Power is brought into populated areas on long, high voltage transmission lines, which are usually not insulated. That means a fallen tree or branch that touches the line can easily ignite a fire. Replacing those exposed wires with what’s called covered conductor wire would make the system safer. More cameras and weather monitoring technology would also help PG&E predict fire danger better.
3) Cut back vegetation. PG&E is also responsible for trimming vegetation around its lines to reduce the likelihood of it brushing up against live wires. Skinner points out often people push back against this work for aesthetic reasons, but it’s very important. That’s why he’s concerned that despite submitting plans for increased inspections and tree trimming, PG&E may be rushing to fill quotas instead of doing work in the most fire-prone areas.
The CPUC has hired more people to inspect the work the utilities say they’ve done. A federal monitor is also watching PG&E. But there are still signs that PG&E’s safety program has problems.
“And so it raises the question of how are things getting missed when these are some of the areas where PG&E, coming out of the 17 and 18 fires, is saying that they're doing the best work,” Skinner says. “So there's clearly still a long road ahead for PG&E.”
Could New Technologies Change the Paradigm?
UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor Sascha von Meier is excited about the promise of a “smarter grid,” one where utilities could control the component parts better.
Sascha von Meier has experimented with what are known as “synchrophasors,” sensors on the lines that detect small and large power disturbances. So, for example, a tree branch might bump up against an exposed line a dozen times before finally igniting a fire. The synchrophasors would sense and record that data, giving the utility precise information about problematic areas and equipment.
This kind of technology is already in use or being tested. San Diego Gas and Electric has deployed sensors on its distribution lines that can detect if a line breaks and shut off power instantly, before the severed wire touches the ground. PG&E tested similar technology in Napa Valley and found it useful for detecting equipment that needed replacing.
von Meier says a smarter grid would allow utilities to operate the system in fundamentally different ways. It would make it easier, for example, to integrate rooftop solar generation into the mix, to deal with electric vehicle charging and to potentially create microgrids that could generate and store power independently during a power shutoff.
How Did PG&E Get So Big?
PG&E’s history goes back to just after the Gold Rush, when California’s population first boomed. At the time, electricity generation was extremely local, just a small generator hooked up to a few poles and wires running into a building. Over time, companies realized it was more efficient to team up, generate power further away, and bring it to cities on long transmission lines. As power companies consolidated throughout the 20th century, PG&E kept getting bigger and bigger.
“It's something that grew kind of organically over the course of decades,” says Steve Weissman, a UC Berkeley public policy professor and former administrative law judge at the CPUC. “As a result of that, this is a company that really never got to a point where it stepped back and asked itself, ‘Have we become too big for our current form of management?’ [They haven’t had to] ask a lot of self-reflective questions about the most useful way to make sure the service is safe, that it’s environmentally sensitive, that it's reliable and that it's cheap.”
That lack of foresight may help explain why PG&E has such a bad track record when it comes to safety. When one of PG&E’s gas pipelines exploded in San Bruno in 2010 it killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. There was a visible crack in a line, something PG&E quality control failed to find. Similar story with the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise and killed 85 people — old and poorly maintained PG&E equipment was at fault.
“This is a company that has not had an instinct to put safeguards in place ... to make sure people are looking for problems and trying to identify them and overcome them early,” Weissman says.
But Weissman doesn’t put all the blame on the company. He says regulators are also at fault. In the 1980s and 1990s there was a national backlash against government regulation. Voters signaled they felt companies should be left alone to run their businesses without government meddling.
“The notion was that these big companies care a lot about safety,” Weissman says. “And so what the commission wanted to do was to step back and let the company take care of its system. And with the understanding that if problems came up, the company would come and report those problems to the regulators.”
That “light touch” approach meant the CPUC made rules and trusted the utilities to implement them. They didn’t always check to make sure safety improvements and inspections were actually getting done.
“Now the regulators, I think, have a very different approach and a very different attitude about overseeing what these companies are doing,” Weissman says.
Get our monthly newsletter featuring listener questions not answered on the Bay Curious podcast.