California wildfires spark renewed debate over underground power transmission lines | Brunell

November’s Camp Wildfire was California’s deadliest killing 86 people and destroying 14,000 homes along with more than 500 businesses. The financial fallout is forcing PG&E, northern California’s electric utility, to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It is a catastrophe we all hope to avoid.

The fire’s probable cause was overhead power lines coming into contact with nearby trees which is an ongoing problem for power lines attached to poles and metal towers. While we have located the ignition point, the problem is far greater than whether high-voltage power lines should be above or below ground.

So why not require large transmission lines carrying power over mountains and prairies to be buried such as is done in major cities and newer housing and commercial developments?

Popular Science Magazine examined that alternative. Hurricane weary Florida residence wanted utilities to bury power lines to avoid prolonged electrical outages. Ted Kury, a University of Florida researcher, found that in some places undergrounding would work, but it has other problems and carries a hefty price tag.

One key problem is finding ways to dissipate the heat generated when large amounts of electricity is transmitted from generators to customers; some of which are hundreds of miles apart.

“That’s why utilities wrapped their underground wires in plastic and surround them with a conduit like oil to keep things from overheating,” Kury wrote.

Trenching can be disruptive particularly in urban areas. Streets and highways are often closed during construction causing traffic jams. To remedy that, some contractors resort to direction drilling and installing pipe which then houses power lines.

Kury found that a major obstacle is cost. For example, in North Carolina researchers calculated over 25-years burying the state’s entire transmission network would raise the price of electricity by 125 percent. In Washington, D.C., the added cost is over $1 billion which ratepayers will absorb in their monthly electric bills.

Proponents will argue that the cost of the corresponding outages are immense. Numerous analyses show even a one hour power outage can cost commercial and industrial facilities tens of thousands of dollars – and outages often last much longer. In the case of semi-conductor fabrication in Portland-Vancouver metro area, even minor power outages harm production.

“In specialized industries like museums, a power outage can mean the difference between a safe, stable climate for art and an environment that starts to quickly degrade priceless artifacts. And as we’ve witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, damaged grids can claim human lives,” Popular Science’s Eleanor Cummins wrote last June.

Ultimately, neither system can protect power in every situation. “During Hurricane Sandy, which slammed into the northeast in 2012, underground electrical equipment flooded and above-ground utility poles were downed. It is nearly impossible to protect the electricity grid from damage,” Kury added.

The central issue is minimizing risk and rapid response. New technology helps.

For example, Dr. Edmund Schweitzer developed a system to quickly pinpoint transmission line failures and instantly route electricity around the problem. Today, SEL, Inc., is a world-leader in power technology and its Pullman manufacturing facility employs 5,000 people.

Many utilities now use drones to monitor remote power lines and send crews to remote hazards which could drop power poles and power lines.

The point is there are no magic remedies when it comes to stringing power line above or below ground. There are trade-offs and while people don’t want to lose electricity, they are prone to oppose overhead transmission lines in their neighborhoods.

Recovering from the catastrophic western wildfires of recent years, is expensive and painful. It is prompting researchers to not only re-examine electricity transmission, but how we manage our forests and rangelands.

Hopefully, collectively we realize there are no instant or magic solutions and resolve differences.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

More in Opinion

Seeking compromise on data privacy, Dems found controversy

Microsoft, Amazon and Comcast got invited to to help craft language but consumer groups did not

Woman on 17-day fast to spotlight orcas’ plight

At nearly noon, Lanni Johnson sat in a fold-up beach chair in… Continue reading

Remember a good friend who went his own way

One of the inevitable costs in aging is watching old friends pass… Continue reading

Are sheriffs above the law?

Washington voters have spoken on I-1639. Sheriffs need to set the stage to follow their oath of office - and enforce the law.

Democrats are in charge, but GOP is helping steer the debate

Republicans see their role as fixing or foiling bad bills. Democrats’ tax bills are their new target

Teaching, training tomorrow’s leaders, workers

Legislature urged to fully fund our community and technical colleges

What tax-raising idea will win out in March budget madness?

Democrats, who control the House and Senate, are set to release spending plans and revenue packages

Libraries as entrepreneurial hubs | Rosenblum

Key measures of a healthy economy include, among other things, new businesses… Continue reading

Resetting state view on helping those with substance abuse

In opioid epidemic, a lawmaker wants recovery to be on the same pedestal as treatment and prevention

California wildfires spark renewed debate over underground power transmission lines | Brunell

November’s Camp Wildfire was California’s deadliest killing 86 people and destroying 14,000… Continue reading

Puget Sound is not a sewer | Loomis

We must stop treating Puget Sound like a sewer if we are… Continue reading

When tomorrow becomes today: King County cities must tackle affordable housing

Microsoft has started the regional dialogue, but will cities rise to the challenge?