Power Company CEO Promises to Bury the Lines to Prevent Fires

It won’t be cheap -- and somebody will have to pay for it.

Under fire. Wall Street Journal reports PG&E CEO

Under fire. Wall Street Journal reports PG&E CEO’s “bury the lines” initiative was not popular with the power company’s board of directors.

I watch as California burns.  Not today. We’ve entered our “rainy season.” But every summer it gets worse. I don’t see fires out my window, but they are still fresh in memory from local news reports, CNN and calfire.org

Wildfires are the biggest risk to property in the Western United States. This year we had the Dixie Fire, the second biggest fire in California’s history. In 2017, the Dixie Fire consumed over 963,000 acres. In 2015, the Tubbs Fire destroyed 1,600 homes in the affluent Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa just 35 miles from where I live. The fire and smoke also damaged may of Sonoma County’s famed vineyards.

Drought in California from 2000 to present. D0 = abnormally dry, D1 to D4 indicates moderate to exceptional drought. (Picture courtesy of drought.gov.)

Drought in California from 2000 to present. D0 = abnormally dry, D1 to D4 indicates moderate to exceptional drought. (Picture courtesy of drought.gov.)

It’s Not Rocket Science —Bury the Lines

The cause of all these fires is no mystery: it’s drought. We’ve had droughts in 17 of the last 20 years in California. Our worst streak was a severe drought between 2014 and 2017, but the drought we are in now could be longer. The droughts leave dried out fields of grass and dead trees—all fuel for the inevitable fires. All too often, this fuel is ignited by electrical equipment from the power lines, courtesy of our electric power utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). PG&E has acknowledged, been found guilty and has been fined for its role in several fires.

The solution is painfully simple. The utility should bury its power lines. The company knows that. The government knows that. We all know that.

But never has a solution so obvious been so difficult to implement.

Burying a power cable involves digging a ditch, adding insulation, and where there is a risk that cables could be severed, encasing them in metal conduit. This is not rocket science.

Under fire. PG&E CEO Patty Poppe promises to bury power lines when visiting the scene of a recent fire found to have been started by PG&E equipment during a visit to Chico, Calif.

Patti Poppe was appointed CEO of PG&E in November, 2020. With a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Purdue University and master’s in management from Stanford University, she was able to rise through the ranks at DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, both electric power utilities providing power in Michigan. With four of the five Great Lakes around it, Michigan had no drought issues for Poppe to contend with.

Poppe visited Chico, the biggest city in Butte County, Calif. in July 2021. Butte County had a nasty history of fires before the Dixie Fire. The Paradise Fire left the town of Paradise a smoking ruin and all its 26,000 residents homeless.

With a genuine sympathy, Poppe promised to bury 10,000 miles of power lines in California’s highest risk areas, including Butte County. It would cost $20 billion, and PG&E would pay for it, she said. That may have elicited 86,000 cheers from all of Chico’s residents who had been breathing the smoke and feeling the heat from nearby fires, but the announcement landed with a thud at PG&E’s board room. Poppe had only alerted the board of her plan before she left for Chico. The board had not yet gotten their heads around the plan.

Who was going to pay for it? $20 billion was close to the entire valuation of PG&E.

Poppe is PG&E’s 5th CEO in 5 years. One board member was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying he wished that Poppe would have consulted the board before making such a promise—a hint that this was a promise PG&E could not keep—maybe not for Chico—and even less likely for the whole state. And since the board of directors picks the company’s CEOs, we have to wonder if a well-meaning CEO’s days are numbered.

High-voltage power lines being installed in underground trenches along a road. (Image source: stock photo.)

High-voltage power lines being installed in underground trenches along a road. (Image source: stock photo.)

Legal Monopolies

The beleaguered electric company has twice faced bankruptcy. And it gets worse. PG&E is the only public utility to be charged with involuntary manslaughter and homicide for its equipment setting off wildfires.

Public utilities operate in a unique business environment. They are given a license by the state to operate monopolies, normally illegal in any other industry. You might think that would make public utilities as lucrative as gold mines. While that might be true in countries with lax laws, in the United States, the state governments are to impose rules that regulate and monitor public utilities closely  while allowing them to eke out a little profit to provide dividends. The average dividend yield for utilities in the U.S. in 2018 was a meager 2.6 percent.

But managing California’s electric power grid may be a no-win situation.

Again With the Drought

Fuel for the fire. Power lines over dry grass and trees in El Cerrito, across the bay from San Francisco. (Picture courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle.)

Fuel for the fire. Power lines over dry grass and trees in El Cerrito, across the bay from San Francisco. (Picture courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle.)

Almost the whole of California grows vegetation from the meager precipitation that might fall over a few winter months. Briefly, our hills turn green. All too quickly, the grasses die and turn into tinder. Adding to the tinder are so many dead trees. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 129 million trees across California have died since 2010 due to drought and insect infestation. The total fuel load—the grass that is ignited by a downed power line or a blown transformer—will light up the dry, dead wood. The result: fires that are not only more frequent but are also hotter than ever.

A company charged with providing power across the nation’s third biggest state (behind Alaska and Texas) must crisscross power lines over vast fields of combustible material, dead dry grass interspersed with dead trees. The dry grass ignites only too easily. The fire burns hottest where the dead trees burn. So hot is the fire that live trees, wet with sap, will also heat up, dry out and catch fire. 

Who to Whip? Who to Pay?

PG&E has learned to clear swaths of land with tall grass and trees under their power lines. But the Dixie Fire started from a healthy tree that fell across a power line that was 40 feet away. Honestly, how can you guard against that? Also, thousands of square miles are federal land. Shouldn’t the national government be responsible for clearing the brush and dead trees there?

Clear a swath under the lines in the forests, say public utility watchdogs. Monitor the lines around the clock. Maintain the equipment. Bury the lines.

“We don’t care how, just do it” says the collective voice of California residents. “And by the way, do it without raising the rates.”

You might think PG&E, for all its challenges, for the loud outcry against the power company, charges residents more than any power company in any state. That is not true. Hawaii residents pay the most ($0.32 per kWh) for their electricity, followed by Oklahoma, then a few New England states. California, at $0.22/kWh, is sixth highest. Michigan, the state that has more water than it knows what to do with, pays less ($0.17/kWh) than a state that is ravaged by drought-caused fires.

The point is this: Californians could pay more for their electricity, giving PG&E funds to bury its lines. We can’t continue to demand cheap electricity without footing the bill for our electric company to deliver it to us safely. Bankrupting PG&E again is not the answer. We may only know how to resist paying more, but we can’t keep whipping the horse when it can’t pull the cart.

Clearly, one solution to fewer fires is burying the power lines. Clearly, this approach will be expensive. But is it possible for 40 million Californians to have cheap electricity delivered without the threat of burning down their houses and without picking up the tab for burying the lines?

The $20 billion to bury the power lines in and around Butte County will cost each Californian $500. We have many more counties in the state.