WASHINGTON (AP) — Trees toppling onto above-ground power lines spark wildfires, more than 1,000 of them in the last decade in California alone. The wires snap in blizzards and hurricanes, causing dayslong outages. Everywhere, power poles topple in all kinds of disasters, blocking escape routes.
Around the U.S., dealing with the vulnerability of overhead power lines — one of many problems that experts say will only get worse as the climate deteriorates — by burying them or strengthening them is spotty and disorganized on a national level, and painfully slow, at best.
Utilities say there’s no one best way to safeguard the millions of miles of U.S. power lines and that doing so would cost many billions of dollars — $3 million for a single mile of power lines by some estimates. Critics counter by pointing to the at least equally great economic costs of outages and utility-sparked wildfires. Estimated property losses for a single such wildfire, a California blaze that killed 85 last year, reached $16.5 billion.
Overall, electrical outages caused by bad weather cost the U.S. economy up to $33 billion in an average year — and more, in an especially bad weather year, the Energy Department estimated in 2013. The researchers estimated there were 679 widespread outages from harsh weather between 2003 and 2012.
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 PG&E, the state’s largest investor-owned utility.
Vicki McCaslin, a 60-year-old repeat evacuee in the San Francisco Bay area, described spotting a PG&E worker in her neighborhood during a lull in last month’s wind and fires.
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 California. In coastal states such as Florida, hurricanes topple poles and knock out power for days. And in heartland states like Minnesota, it’s wintry ice storms and high winds that bring the electrical wires crashing down.
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 Ted Kury, director of energy studies for the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center.
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 $176 million for 156 projects to bury power lines, in 16 states and four U.S. territories, FEMA says. Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation this year to encourage moving power lines underground, has been one of the top recipients, along with Minnesota.
But the FEMA hazard-mitigation grants for the work so far break down to a little more than $1 million per project. In California, where PG&E oversees 100,000 miles of overhead electrical lines, that average size of grant doesn’t cover the price tag PG&E puts on burying a single mile of line.
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.
In Palm Beach, Florida, a resort community of first, second and third homes, property owners paid attention when a utility begin to erect unlovely concrete power poles as part of an effort to harden the state’s electrical grid against hurricanes.