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What California can do to prevent fires from power lines

This article first ran in the San Francisco Chronicle

When the lights go out, we gain new perspective on what we normally take for granted. The increasingly volatile environment that is a consequence of global warming means power can no longer be assured to our homes and businesses, not even 99% of the time. Given this new reality, the preemptive blackouts PG&E and other utilities imposed across California should lead to new assessments of what steps California, as well as other states, must take to balance public safety with power availability, as well as power grid resiliency with affordability.

The most comprehensive — and most expensive — solution is to move power lines underground where trees, wind, ice, snow, and most animals cannot touch wires, and where power-line failures can’t readily start fires. But the fire-prone terrains of California’s mountain ranges are vast, treacherous, rock-packed spans. Undergrounding in these regions would cost multiples of the $1.16 million per mile average cost estimate presented to regulators for PG&E’s entire service territory. Undergrounding all of California’s power lines would cost well over $100 billion, and would take decades.

It’s not a quick fix.

But here’s what should be done now in all states that are concerned about electric infrastructures causing wildfires.

Planning commissions, at the county and local level, need to immediately establish and enforce rules that require undergrounding of electrical infrastructure when construction permits for new building or remodeling are granted, including development of new lots that propose to install utilities. The extent of undergrounding needs to be considered in a balanced fashion, but at a minimum service to the new or remodeled structure needs to be undergrounded, no exceptions. Extending this to include primary power lines across and on the parcel of land could also be required.

The undergrounding of overhead power lines needs to be prioritized. State and local officials should develop plans to underground the circuits and feeders at greatest risk in fire-prone areas. After comparing the cost to fire exposure, potential for loss and liability of surrounding businesses and private structures, local planners need to promptly determine whether to move ahead with undergrounding the vital components of the local power grid. For those who recognized the tragic Paradise fire as a warning, this will be a worthwhile investment.

Most immediately, power companies and state authorities need to band together to employ technology solutions that can monitor every mile of the power grid to understand risks, and take appropriate actions, including urgent maintenance. From employing high-definition cameras, to power line sensors, to drones powered with machine learning capability that constantly improves the quality of inspections, as well as comprehensive power grid isolation strategies, utilities need to keep a close eye on the status of their assets to minimize the chance of any more catastrophic fires.

Our way of life is at risk. Given the current construction of the California grid, public safety power shutoffs will become a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Utilities can limit which customers are going to be impacted, but there will always be a population of customers that will see disruptions during high-risk fire events. If Californians hope to avoid these blackouts, we must reduce the danger of fire from overhead power lines. But it is an enormous challenge for utilities in California and all western states. Getting the job done will require innovative technological solutions, vigilance, resourcefulness, and a willingness to invest billions.

Gregg Edeson is the reliability and resiliency lead at PA Consulting

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  • Gregg Edeson

    Gregg Edeson

    PA energy and utilities expert

    Gregg is PA's reliability and resiliency lead focused on grid modernization efforts, asset management and reliability improvement strategies

    Insights by Gregg Edeson

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