By Joel D. Joseph
California has a devastating problem with forest fires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that, "the fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year. Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend. Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire. The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierras...."
In 2020, a team of researchers studied the nationwide impact of California's 2018 wildfire season and estimated that its economic damage totaled $148.5 billion.
For sixty to one hundred billion dollars, less than the cost of repairing damage caused by one year's fires, California can afford to bury all of its high-voltage power lines. High voltage power lines are the cause of most of California's forest fires. Because high-voltage power lines are usually not insulated, when dry brush is touched by uninsulated wires, massive fires erupt and spread easily.
According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 1,500 California fires in the past six years including the deadliest ever were caused by one company: Pacific Gas & Electric. A problem with PG&E equipment was also the cause of the Camp Fire, a California state agency said, which killed at least 85 people last year and destroyed more than 18,800 structures. It was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.
In July 2021 PG&E, one of the nation's largest gas and electric utilities, announced its intention to install underground about 10,000 miles of its above-ground electric-distribution power lines that are located in areas at high risk of wildfire. PG&E has 8,000 more miles of power lines that are above ground.
California has a total of 33,000 miles of high-power transmission lines, with PG&E owning 57% (in northern California), Southern California Edison, 16%, San Diego Gas & Electric, 6%, municipal utilities 18%, and the federal government 3%. The city of Los Angeles owns the local power company there (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power). Los Angeles County has 6,752 miles of overhead power lines and 3,626 miles of underground distribution lines.
How to Pay for Burying the Power Lines
California's independent Legislative Analyst's Office is forecasting that the state will have a $31 billion budget surplus in 2022. From April through June of this year, California businesses reported a record high $216.8 billion in taxable sales a 38.8% increase over the same period in 2020 and a 17.4% increase over those months in pre-pandemic 2019. Nick Maduros, director of the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, said it is "a sign that business owners found creative ways to adapt during a difficult year." California can use part of that surplus to pay for or loan money to power companies to bury their power lines.
It costs about $2-3 million per mile to convert overhead lines to underground electric distribution lines, while the cost to build a mile of new overhead line is less than a third of that, at approximately $800,000 per mile, according to PG&E's website. Potentially costing upward of $20 billion, the PG&E's multiyear initiative is expected to decrease the extent to which PG&E's power lines cause wildfires, reduce the investor-owned utility's maintenance costs, and improve the reliability of electricity distribution in California.
The cost to bury power lines in Los Angeles County will be from $15 to $20 billion. The state of California can lend the county that amount of money at a low interest rate.
The human and monetary costs of forest fires in California is staggering. In addition, thousands of wild and domesticated animals are killed every year by fires. Hundreds of Californians have lost their lives, their livelihoods and their homes during the past decade. For an investment by the power companies and the State of California of $60 to $100 billion, the state could save ten times that much over a decade. Loss of life could be reduced dramatically. The cost-benefit analysis demonstrates that now is the time for California and its power companies to start burying its high-voltage power lines. It will make the state safer, more beautiful and save billions of dollars and thousands of lives. I cannot think of a better way to invest the state's resources. In addition, burying power lines will create about 100,000 good-paying jobs for constructions workers, electrical workers and others.