The Water Cooler – Should PG&E Put All Their Power Lines Underground?

May 22, 2019 12:27 pm · 48 comments

The “Water Cooler” is a feature on where we ask you a question or provide a topic, and you talk about it.

The “Water Cooler” will be up Monday-Friday at noon.

Today’s question:

QUESTION: Do you think PG&E should put all their power lines underground?

Talk about it.

Bob Foo May 22, 2019 at 12:30 PM


Nope May 22, 2019 at 12:35 PM

No. We’d have to pay for it and it would make our PG&E bills so high no one could afford them.

Dawg May 22, 2019 at 12:35 PM

No, it’s too expensive and the consumer is the one who will pay. PG&E needs to do a better job at maintaining the equipment already in use.

AnonZ May 22, 2019 at 12:49 PM

Not if it’s going to cost Customers.

Simonpure May 22, 2019 at 12:52 PM


Captain Bebops May 22, 2019 at 12:54 PM

PG&E probably needs to be put underground since it can’t be managed properly. Break it up into smaller more manageable utilities. Putting existing lines underground is unfortunately very expensive. The only places around here I see with utilities underground are developments probably done in the last 30 years.

Dr. Jellyfinger May 22, 2019 at 1:01 PM

It would look nicer but it will still blow up.

ClayDen May 22, 2019 at 4:57 PM

Our development in Clayton was built 42 years ago with underground utilities.

Now, if I could just get fiber from somebody other than Comcast………….

C2 May 22, 2019 at 12:58 PM

Nope. I can’t imagine the disruption it would cause. Even if the lines could be directionally drilled in place, they would have to dig a pit in front of every house, and then install underground connections for each one. And on top of that, there are all the other utility conflicts (water, sewer, gas, & communications).

Michael May 22, 2019 at 1:39 PM

…but if we did allow it the cracked sidewalks would finally get replaced. Ha ha ha

The Wizard May 22, 2019 at 12:58 PM


Cowellian May 22, 2019 at 1:12 PM

I liked underground utilities in the Crossings. But retrofitting everyone will cost a fortune, and it’s the customers who will pay for it.

Fred May 22, 2019 at 1:18 PM

Underground cables can be damaged with floods and earthquakes.

Mimi (original) May 22, 2019 at 1:24 PM

As others have said, it is very expensive to take current utilities underground. When I worked in cable construction we rarely could get funding to underground utilities. When a construction project is in its infancy and utilities are planned for undergrounding it’s more reasonable. So, No, they should not underground current utilities.

Substation Engr May 22, 2019 at 1:33 PM

Nope – it’s cost-prohibitive for installation, especially at the transmission level (60kV and above), running about 5-10 times the cost of overhead ; my guess at the transmission level is $500k to $2mm per mile depending on the location. Distribution in urban areas would not be that much different, due to other costs not seen in rural areas.. Secondly, there are the interferences with water, gas, telecomm, etc and the UG power lines to houses need to be buried under those other utilities. Thirdly, the cost to maintain UG vs OH lines is roughly double, as you can’t inspect the UG cables as you can with OH lines.

Then there’s the safety hazard of dig-ins…..

Michael May 22, 2019 at 1:44 PM

New construction only and within a known fire zone area. Maybe the cost will be so high it would deter from future building of homes in those high risk areas.

chuckie the troll May 22, 2019 at 1:56 PM

I believe that there would be technical/physical constraints difficult or impossible to overcome, even if money were no object. And I’m guessing no one posting here wants to have their rates (at least) double to pay for this kind of scheme.

I’ve traveled through many states, and they tend to have very wide utility corridors which are tree-free. Look back just a short while ago and remember the resistance PG&E faced with trying to remove trees in Concord, Lafayette, etc…No one wants their trees removed until after the fire when it is too late.

The fact is that California is its own worst enemy. We’ve known since at least the 70’s (when I worked on a fire crew) that our failure to thin forests and suppression of fires to reduce the fuel load in these areas creates deadly conditions for people, wildlife and the plant kingdom. Too bad the ‘environmentalists who block these projects aren’t on the hook to pay for the damages.

Leeland May 22, 2019 at 8:29 PM

Finally!!! Someone who gets it!

Mary Fouts May 22, 2019 at 2:01 PM

No. As others have commented, this feet is impossible to do.

Just considering what I’m going through now installing our new open trench waste line. Marking for utilities and waste line location, concrete sawing and jack hammering out concrete/cutting rebar in driveway, hand digging and backhoe trench, installing new line while so that waste line isn’t out for more than 4 hours at a time, backfilling with dirt or gravel, then replacement of removed driveway and patio. And hauling away of dirt replaced by 13 yds of gravel sitting in my driveway. Hauling away and properly disposing/recycling of removed concrete and removed/unused dirt. And all of the related commotion, noise, expense, and unexpected “issues” that arise.

Imagine magnifying all that throughout the entire State of CA. Impossible. Nuttier than Jerry Brown’s Crazy Train to Nowhere.

Simonpure May 22, 2019 at 2:30 PM

Sorry Mary…could not help it. It’s feat.

Mary Fouts May 22, 2019 at 3:39 PM

@Simonpure – I know, right?! I noticed the error after my comment was posted, rolled my eyes, and immediately thought: Who will be the first person to call me on this feet/feat error? Thanks for giving me a smile and a laugh.

Me May 22, 2019 at 2:45 PM

It’s weird that nobody considers how expensive the wild fires are.

Leeland May 22, 2019 at 8:32 PM

More expensive than cleaning up and thinning out the forests.

Gititogether May 22, 2019 at 2:51 PM

As others have said, an impractical solution. However…California PWs (political-weasels) are famous for forcing half-baked solutions onto innocent citizens (MTBE). One of (Nikola) Tesla’s goals was wireless transmission of electricity… maybe explore that solution…or better cabling…or proper tree trimming…etc.

Sick of it May 22, 2019 at 3:07 PM

Hope the link works. But this gives good reasoning why not

Jack's Fan May 22, 2019 at 3:08 PM

As someone who had immediate family lose fires in two different PG&E-caused wildfires I understand why folks would want to, but at this point it is simply not feasible. Any new construction should require underground utilities though, and many rural locations could be done more easily, which is where most of the danger lies.

The Mamba May 22, 2019 at 3:34 PM

I don’t know about all, but certainly power lines in high wind, heavily wooded areas. We’ve been paying for it for years, but PG&E has sat on the money and been extremely slow to roll it out. Because they are a criminal organization.

MEV May 22, 2019 at 3:40 PM

Yes, would have a lot less power outages and dangerous equipment to cause fires. It should have already been done. No lines should be built above ground any more. None of this mass development should be approved without mass transit and underground power. Concord is so ugly with all those old power lines plus it is a danger because none of the trees are kept trimmed.

Anon May 23, 2019 at 10:45 PM

No new neighborhoods have been built with above ground lines since the 1970s.

FreedomLovingDad May 22, 2019 at 3:43 PM

As one who has worked in the industry for 30 years, the idea is insane. The total cost would be measured as a decent percentage of our state’s GDP, well over a hundred, perhaps two hundred billion dollars. It would make the high speed train look like a cup.of coffee. And the first major earthquake would literally tear it into pieces.

PG&E has a major culture problem. It has to get fixed. Making it public will create another DMV. We need real industry leaders to get rid of the ineptitude and reestablish integrity at all levels. San Bruno should have, but unfortunately didn’t do it. Hopefully new leadership can fix it. Until then the tragedies will continue.

Anon May 23, 2019 at 1:04 PM

One of the “culture” issues is California State law (not the Union) which protects the bottom feeder loser employees.

Everyone who has been to the post office, bart or dmv knows what I’m saying.

Sick of it May 22, 2019 at 3:45 PM

Even if all the power lines had been under ground, if the fires had started by any other means that is very possible what difference would it make. It seems to me that the planning of these areas with limited routes out of the area is a bigger problem than the power lines. PG&E was the cause of the fire, but how could have the loss of life have been prevented. It seems it was a disaster waiting to happen and PG&E just happened to be the trigger. Could have easily been some other source and the end results would probably have been the same. As a society we need to better plan for disasters before they happen

Dennis May 22, 2019 at 7:31 PM

Well said.

Leeland May 22, 2019 at 8:38 PM

After all, the Carr fire, in Redding, was started by a flat tire.

JG27 AD May 22, 2019 at 3:50 PM

Only the big ugly lines along Pine Hollow Road. 🙂


Rob May 22, 2019 at 4:00 PM

I think that there are likely places where moving them underground would make complete sense and other places it is less of an issue to worry about.

Ricardoh May 22, 2019 at 4:01 PM

Maybe through forested areas where fire hazards are high. I wouldn’t mind it on my block if the price was reasonable.

Bob May 22, 2019 at 4:04 PM

Do we really want to encourage this folks to dig more?

Recall ‘Em All May 22, 2019 at 7:31 PM

It depends . . .

Realitycheck May 23, 2019 at 12:46 AM

1. What goal would that accomplish?
2. At what cost (which the average non-welfare-recipient Californian will bear)?
3. Are you really that oblivious about issues with underground transmission lines?

This is a false dilemma (overhead vs. underground) which ignores a lot of reality to turn this into a single-issue “problem” or “fix” to the “problem.”

Anon May 23, 2019 at 9:30 AM

Careful what u ask for, as this could be like trying to change the Constitution.
If PG&E decides to bury lines and only supply electricity to the edge of your property at sidewalk and then make you the homeowner pay for trenching to your electric panel and also you will then be responsible for that buried wire on your property (the same way that you are for the water line).
You’re looking at $5,000 to $10,000 out of pocket.

Mary Fouts May 23, 2019 at 1:58 PM

Great point, hadn’t thought of that.

Chicken Little May 23, 2019 at 2:51 PM

$5k-$10k? Maybe if your panel is four miles from the sidewalk, lol.

Mr Electrician May 23, 2019 at 3:04 PM

I am an electrical contractor and you are absolutely correct, I can add to that. Most houses that have an overhead services have “overhead only” panels which means that your service panel also has to be replaced. I have done a lot of work in Berkeley doing exactly this. Whenever the city decides that a street has to change to underground wiring, each homeowner has to have the outside panel replaced, have a trench dug and have a conduit installed from the new panel to the sidewalk where PG&E will connect it to their conduit. The homeowner is responsible for the full cost of this including the cost of the permit. It cost each resident in Berkeley $5,000 to $10,000 AND in some instances the homeowner is without power for the day sometimes 2 days because PG&E often is unable to get the power back on as they are the only ones that can install the wiring inside the conduit from their vault to the new service panel. So while it sounds great, it will cost each homeowner $5,000 to $10,000. Also food for thought… The wiring from the pole to the house is not the same wires that cause the fires. It is the high voltage wires that start the fires.

Mary Fouts May 23, 2019 at 4:11 PM

@ Chicken Little – The lol is on you. Have you done or priced any residential utility hook up connection work recently, or even in the last 5 years? The cost adds up quickly, with required work and necessary $$$ permit fees. And that doesn’t begin to go into the inconveniences to the homeowner. Heck, a new sewer line connection for a single residences in the central sanitary district starts at almost $9000 for the basic minimal permit, and often goes much higher.

And there will always be unexpected problems and extra costs.

anon May 23, 2019 at 11:01 AM

yes. Drive down Alberta or other older streets. They are overloading these old power poles. Most of the poles are already leaning and have way to many lines on them. A real ugly problem.

WC Resident May 23, 2019 at 5:44 PM

@Mr Electrician about “The wiring from the pole to the house is not the same wires that cause the fires.”

1) The Tubbs fire that burned into Santa Rosa was started by a standard 120+120 volt service drop. The property owner had their own poles. One of the poles had been attacked often enough by wood peckers that it was about to fall over onto the house. The owner intended to replace it (famous last words)… During a windstorm it’s believed the pole finally fell over onto the house. That it fell over can’t be confirmed as the house and pole were destroyed. However, the house in the where the pole had been was confirmed to be the point of origin.

2) When it comes to fires caused by the electrical system, commercial and residential structures are nearly always involved. Those almost never have high voltage. Thus I’m surprised at your claim “It is the high voltage wires that start the fires.” I’m assuming by “high voltage” that you over 600 volts.

3) High voltage wiring (over 600 volts) is almost never the point of origin for a fire unless there is an external event such as a vehicle or wind knocking over a pole.

The Camp Fire, that burned into Paradise, was a wind triggered mechanical failure. The transmission line was connected to an insulator. The insulator was connected to the tower using an eye-bolt. The tower was 99 years old. It’s not clear if the insulator was also 99 years old. It appears that after 99 years of rocking in the wind that the insulator broke loose from the tower. That allowed the transmission line to come into contact with the tower (I’m simplifying a little here, I know there’s a jumper and splices) that generated a cascade of sparks that landed in the grass below.

Inspection of the transmission lines is normally done from helicopters using thermal/infra-red cameras. They are looking for warm or hot spots indicating a failing splice or cable. Unfortunately, the eyebolt is on the cold side and is not involved with transmitting electricity. At present, the cables and eyebolts are not manufactured with inspection marks. If marks are added then you measure from the mark on the eyebolt to a mark on the cable using calipers to see if either the eyebolt or cable is wearing too much.

Regular Guy May 23, 2019 at 10:25 PM

To use an absolute and suggest that “all” power lines should be undergrounded is a straw man.

However, there should be standards developed about when, given the circumstances, wires should be undergrounded versus maintained above ground. And, if they are above ground, what are the appropriate clearances given the circumstances.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: