Why Doesn't PG&E Bury the Power Lines to Prevent Wildfires?
Own from cutie. California has always had wildfires like earthquakes were drought. They're part of living in this state. County residents there is a large fire off mark. West springs road are several homes dolphin. Flame 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. Pge our power company happened with fire. One that went on for former all right in just two and a half years. The utilities equipment started more than fifteen hundred fires. A wall street journal investigation found some of those were small but others were deadly like the campfire which burned the town of paradise to the ground in twenty eighteen and killed eighty five people to prevent wildfires. Pg and he has started shutting off the power during dry and windy weather. That's one downed power line or electrical spark is most likely to start a blaze now. Those power shut offs appeared to have prevented fires but the practice has also stranded people without power for days which poses its own health and safety risks i am a survivor of the recent disastrously conceived and implemented shutdown by pg. Any and. i am an angry survivor. curious listeners. Sally has been watching the news and she thought to herself. There must be a better way. My one no why. Pg the doesn't buried their line today on the show. What will it take to both prevent wildfires and keep the power on price. And this is bay. Curious support for bay curious comes from sierra. Nevada brewing company family owned operated and argued over since nineteen eighty proud supporter of independent thought. Whether that's online over the air or in a bottle. More at sierra nevada dot com a lot of people like the idea of burying the power lines. it would certainly look nicer. And it seems like an obvious way to prevent wildfires but is it the best way bay curious producer katrina schwarz. Went to find out when you ask electrical grid experts about burying the power lines. The first thing they point out is how huge the pg any system really is this hardly anything like pg news service territory anywhere in the united states. This is steve weissman. He used to be an administrative law. Judge at the california public utilities commission. So he knows the system inside and out now. He teaches public policy to the next generation at uc berkeley. It covers sixteen different climate zones in the snowy mountains in hot deserts in the coastline. Pg and e. provides power to around five point one million households in central and northern california. Their service area is massive. Seventy thousand square miles. That's about the size of the entire state of oklahoma. Uc berkeley electrical engineering professor. Sasha myer says there are downsides to putting the lines underground that a lot of people don't think about you have kind of trade off to look out which is when power lines are underground if and when something does go wrong. It's a lot harder to find where the problem is into go. Fix it So that then takes longer and cost more to do. Weimeyer actually lives close to where the deadly oakland hills fire devastated homes in nineteen ninety-one. So were here. Just at the edge of broadway terrace and up along. That ridge was the line of defense against the fires. Everything on one side of broadway. Terrace burned down after the fire homeowners pressured. Pg need to put the power lines there underground where they had to basically rebuild the distribution infrastructure. Anyway and so they were gonna spend a lot of money anyway and realizing that. This was a particularly hazardous fire. area it was put underground. Pg unease applying the same logic town of paradise rebuilds following the deadly campfire. They've committed to putting two hundred miles of distribution lines underground. In and around the town undergrounding all of genie's these lines would be a terrifically expensive task. The difficulty is always will. How much can we afford to pay. Who's gonna pay for it. How do we spread those costs around. you know among the rate payers and you know that's really kind of the prickly question anything. Pg does to make it. System safer is going to cost money and even though undergrounding most expensive options. It's a lot. Cheaper than a catastrophic wildfire meet nathaniel. Skinner safety expert at the public advocates office. They fight for the rights of ratepayers. Us i did a rough back of the napkin. Calculation on this. Pg any estimates it costs about three million dollars per mile to put a line underground so the two hundred miles around paradise will cost about four hundred and sixty million. That's a hefty price tag. But it's still a bargain when you realize the campfire caused about sixteen point. Five billion dollars in damages. Steve weissman the uc berkeley public policy. Professor says the costs associated with potential fires should be considered as part of pge's long-term decision making without having the real cost included in the calculation. You're not likely to be making the most well informed decision. Skinner agrees that sometimes undergrounding is the right choice. Like in where. There's only one road out of town. But he doesn't think it's the best deal for ratepayers to put the lines underground everywhere but quickly becomes prohibitively. Expensive people are paying a lot for their electricity service right now. There's a lot of people who can't afford the utility bills. But what point does electricity service become unaffordable and that starts to introduce all sorts of health and safety impacts. Skinner says the lowest estimates for putting the most fire prone sections of pga system would mean the average person's electric bill could go up eightfold. There are cheaper things. Pg new can do right now. That would make the system safer he says. A big one is installing covered conducting wire so if a tree branch falls on the line during a windstorm it doesn't spark a fire. Another is keeping trees. Cut back from the wires. Those are all strategies. Utility companies already have at their disposal. Sasha vampire meanwhile is looking to the future. Thomas edison and george westinghouse would totally recognize every piece of equipment. That's visible here. A lot of this isn't even twentieth century technology. It's kind of nineteenth century Very analog very simple in terms of the individual pieces of it but then when you put it together as a system. It's really complex. Vampire sees promise what are called. Synchro phasers small sensors along the lines that give the utility more precise data about big and small disruptions in the system being able to control the components. Is i think what most people mean when they say a smart grid. A smarter grid would sense if a power line breaks for example and cut off power before the line hits the dry ground and the utility would have a lot more information about how often and in what situations there are power disturbances. That all sounds cool but these new technologies also require high speed communication systems and none of it is cheap. Meyer estimates a few thousand dollars per sensor and millions for communication system that supports them. Pg and e. says they've tested similar technology napa valley and found it useful for detecting equipment that needs replacing. It sounds like there are a lot of things that pg could be doing. Besides putting wires underground that would make the system less likely to start a wildfire but it seems that that work is always going really slowly and that point to the heart. Sally swoops question this fundamental frustration many. Pg customers have that. The utility doesn't invest enough in safety. It's like how many huge catastrophic events have to happen. Why is it this company over and over again. It's hard to know exactly why but you can serve a couple of things. Steve weissman says the history of pga as a company might hold some clues as history goes back about one hundred forty years at this point that then electrical energy was a very local service. You have a small generator. A few poles and wires going to building so that was a beginning of electric service and it happened with all these small companies wasteman says as technology changed companies realized. It was more efficient to team up. It became the norm for big power plants to be located far away from residential areas and brought in on long transmission lines so basically overtime and through a bunch of consolidation. Pg emerged as the power company for much of central and northern california. If something that grew organically over the course of decades weisman says this origin story is important because in many ways. Pg needs growth. Wasn't carefully designed and well thought out plan as a result of that. This is a company that really never got to a point where it set back in ashdod self. Have we become too big for our current form of management to ask a lot of self reflective questions about the most useful way to make sure that services safe environmentally sensitive that it's reliable and it's cheap that lack of foresight may help explain why. Pg has had such a bad track record when it comes to safety the california public utilities commission which regulates the states utilities has found over and over again that pg and e. does not keep good records of its equipment and inspections and without accurate records. They're less likely to identify safety risks. When one of pg needs gas pipelines exploded in san bruno and twenty ten. It killed eight people and destroyed thirty eight homes. There was a visible crack in a line something. Pg inequality control failed to find same story with the campfire that destroyed paradise and killed eighty five people old and poorly maintained. Pg and the equipment was at fault. This is a company that has not had an instinct to put safeguards in place to put in quality assurance programs and other kinds of oversight programs to make sure people are looking for problems and try to identify them overcome them early on through the process for most of its history. Pg has had very little competition. Company policy has been to run the utility as cheaply as possible and use earnings to expand into new types of businesses or pay shareholders. But one never seemed to change. Was the sense that pg and he was a publicly traded competitive company. I anna regulated utility second and think that's part of the psychological trap that's made it difficult for this company to have the instincts necessary to continue to be safe but waste doesn't put all the blame on the company he says regulators are also at fault. The notion was that these big companies carolina about safety in fact. Nobody is likely to care more about safety than the companies themselves and so what the commission wanted to do was to step back and let the company take care of it system and with the understanding that if problems came up well the company would come into report those problems to the regulators. That light touch approach meant the commission made rules and trusted the utilities to implement them do enough checking to make sure safety improvements and inspections. Were actually getting done. I think what we found out now is that that trust that the company will just take care of safety was misplaced and now regulators. I think have a very different approach and very different attitude about overseeing what these companies are doing. has hired more people to inspect the work. Utility say they've done and because of past disasters a federal monitor is also watching. Pg any but there are still signs that pg and e. safety program has problems the two thousand nineteen cade fire was started by a pg knee. Line that the company told regulators was recently inspected and so it raises the question of. How are things getting missed when these are some of the areas where. Pg coming out of the seventeen and eighteen fires is saying the. They're doing the best work that they're doing so there's clearly still a long road ahead for pgn making the system. One hundred percent fire safe may not be possible more. People are moving into fire. Prone areas and climate change has california facing hotter drier summers but pg can at least do what they say. They're already doing better ultimately. We're the ones paying for their mistakes with our money. Our homes and our lives. That was bake curious katrina schwarz. We reached out to pg ni and they chose not to comment on large portions of this story. Big thanks to our newsroom. Colleagues sukey lewis. Maurice resula goes lisa off white and lily jamali just a few of the journalists who regularly cover. Pg any for k. Q. e. d. you can find their indepth reporting about wildfires technology fixes and the company's bankruptcy at cutie dot org slash p g e. We'll put a link in our show notes to thanks also to npr's lauren summer. Who shared her. Sasha on meyer interview with us. 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