Undergrounding power lines prevent power outages and reduce wildfire hazards

March 21, 2024 — by Zack Zhang
Photo by Zack Zhang
The packed, overhead utility pole near my house often goes down during storms.
Days of uninformed power outages are annoying and cause inconvenience to everyone; underground power lines can prevent this.

On a typical stormy Sunday afternoon recently, I listened to the howling wind until suddenly, I heard a sharp beeping of my father’s hard drive signaling a loss of power. Before I could react, all electronics — from lamps to desktops — shut off, leaving me in complete darkness in front of my desk. Having expected it all along, I shut down my phone to save battery. 

Losing power is extremely detrimental in the modern lifestyle due to the heavy reliance on electricity to function. Power lines above ground in California fail to be reliable and safe. So here’s the simple solution: Bury more power lines.  

Having a power outage each year during storms or heat waves has become expected for most Californians. This should not be the norm. Having lived in China for more than a decade, I don’t remember a single time when my family lost power in Beijing, which also had a similar climate pattern with monsoons and heavy rains. 

This stability in Beijing’s grid can be attributed to its underground power lines, which are less vulnerable to the dangers of having them exposed to storm and impact damage.   

And this effort is continuing to expand to older facilities and streets. According to XinhuaNet, the biggest news agency in China, Beijing has removed 6,270 electricity poles and relocated 500 power lines to be buried underground since 2017.  

Although some may argue burying power lines isn’t worth the cost, California would benefit from undergrounding the power lines more than any other state because overhead cables pose a great risk for wildfires.  

According to Kin Insurance, California had the most wildfires among all states in 2023. Its prolonged dry summer seasons make a great accomplice in causing some of the deadliest wildfires with the overhead power cables, which sag over dry and dead foliage in the wild mountain ranges. 

And while there are approximately 81,000 miles of overhead distribution lines by PG&E, just undergrounding those that run through populated or high-fire-hazard regions can substantially resolve the concerns and prevent further unnecessary spendings. Although PG&E has completed over 600 miles of undergrounding as of the end of 2023 and plans to underground 250 more miles in 2024 as a part of their 10,000-mile goal announced in 2021, this effort is not thorough enough to solve all of the problems. 

According to the MercuryNews, undergrounding power lines reduces the risk of ignitions in areas at the highest risk of wildfire by nearly 98%, and moving over 2,100 miles of power lines underground over the next three years will only cost the typical customer about $3.40 a month. 

Ultimately,  undergrounding power cables is the best way to fulfill the mission of increasing reliability of the power grid and reducing the risk of wildfires. PG&E should redouble its efforts to do this work fast — and no doubt untold lives and properties will be saved as a result.

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