Why doesn’t California just bury its power lines? The ugly math.

I’ve written a couple pieces lately on California’s electricity woes from an infrastructure perspective:

On the origins of the rolling blackouts – directing money to politically connected “green” contractors instead of maintaining and improving existing infrastructure

Why only activist hedge funds will consider buying California’s bankrupt utility

Some folks have asked me why the state does not mandate that utilities bury their power lines if they have proven to be a serious fire risk. The answer is simple: time and cost.

Janet Wilson explained the ugly math behind burying electrical lines very well in the Palm Springs Desert Sun:

It costs about $3 million per mile to convert underground electric distribution lines from overhead, 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 a section on PG&E’s website called Facts About Undergrounding Power Lines.

California has 25,526 miles of higher voltage transmission lines, and 239,557 miles of distribution lines, two-thirds of which are overhead, according to CPUC [California Public Utility Commission]. Less than 100 miles per year are transitioned underground, meaning it would take more than 1,000 years to underground all the lines at the current rate.

PG&E, the state’s largest utility, maintains approximately 81,000 miles of overhead distribution lines and approximately 26,000 miles of underground distribution lines. It also has about 18,000 miles of larger transmission lines, the majority of which are overhead lines.

At a cost of $3 million per mile, undergrounding 81,000 miles of distribution lines would cost $243 billion. PG&E has 16 million customers; distributing that expense equally would amount to a bill of more than $15,000 per account. 


Underground costs can vary depending on trenching and paving. If gas and telephone utilities share costs with electric companies, conversion costs can come down, but it all comes out of the customer’s pocket eventually.

Of course, there are other concerns too. Environmentalists who lose their minds over the idea of controlled burns (which have contributed to this problem as well) will sabotage the permitting and other approval processes for running underground lines through open spaces. Considering that a lot of the fire risk comes from droves of people moving outside of major cities for more affordable housing, this would impact a lot of undergrounding projects in fire-prone areas.

(Underground lines are not risk-free solutions anyway. They are not immune to animals chewing through lines or lightning strikes interfering with infrastructure.)

If this pisses you off, consider the fact that the Einsteins in Sacramento thought spending $100 billion on a failed high speed rail project was a good idea. The money they’ve been throwing at that boondoggle could have been used to improve the safety and efficiency of the existing grid. But Democrats in California (in the whole country, really) are fatally allergic to economics and love malinvestment.

As long as communities in California keep sending climate activists to the legislature, the state is going to resemble a third-world country more and more. These people make insane investment decisions to the physical peril of the folks they are supposed to serve.

3 thoughts on “Why doesn’t California just bury its power lines? The ugly math.

  1. Instead of getting dad another ugly tie for Father’s day or some other geegaw for his birthday, why not dump the same money into a fund to bury the power lines so that his area has less fire risk? Maybe you get a nice decorative PDF so you can give it to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, specialized funds would be a creative way to handle a lot of social problems. I used to be on the board of a charity that manages homeless shelters, and I suggested doing the same thing there. Many of the problems related to homelessness are due to folks not being able to save enough money for a deposit on an apartment because they are so cash-flow sensitive or because some government programs are arranged to penalize saving. I told them they should use donor money to create a revolving fund for apartment deposits and similar expenses that go with moving. Then when the lease is up, the deposit money goes back into the fund. Alas, it went nowhere.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s