Buried lines may be immune to the wind, but they’re not indestructible. Earthquakes can jostle that piping, and water can also intrude. On Maui, any efforts to underground lines would have to contend with rising sea levels that could eat at the soil supporting the pipes. “It all comes down to this overarching problem, that there is no place to locate power lines where there is zero threat of environmental interaction,” says Kury. “It’s all about weighing relative risks: What are you most concerned with?”
Alternatively, there are ways to shore up aboveground electrical infrastructure to make it more resistant to failure and sparking. Utility poles can be made out of stronger composite materials or steel instead of wood, and secured to the ground with guy wires. (Singh says PG&E is reinforcing its aboveground infrastructure like this, in addition to its undergrounding efforts.) Clearing trees away from the infrastructure keeps branches from tearing down lines and removes the fuel that would allow a small fire to turn into a big, uncontrollable one.
Some researchers, like Patricia Hidalgo-Gonzalez, director of the Renewable Energy and Advanced Mathematics Laboratory at UC San Diego, are investigating another way to provide communities with more reliable power and reduce the risk of wildfire: the microgrid. This is typically a system of solar panels that charge a large battery, which can be drained if the larger grid goes down, “islanding” the community. In the event that a regional utility does a public safety power shutoff, the microgrid can keep humming along.
Hidalgo-Gonzalez is trying to figure out how to do this in disadvantaged communities, which may be at high fire risk because they lie in the wildland-urban interface, yet don’t have the funds to develop microgrids, which remain very expensive. “Would it make economic sense for the community to share the assets? Should it be like a co-op? Should this be subsidized?” asks Hidalgo-Gonzalez. “It will depend ultimately on the community.”
But even a safer, more resilient power grid would only solve one component of the growing wildfire crisis. In a world primed to burn, any tiny ignition can lead to catastrophe. “Accidents will always happen,” says Michael Gollner, who leads the Fire Research Lab at UC Berkeley. “A kid with matches, a chain dangling off a car, a weed whacker hitting a rock. If we removed all the power infrastructure ignitions, we’d still have fires on those high-wind days.” So there’s no substitute for better management of fuels: replacing invasive species with native ones and removing dead vegetation, especially around electrical infrastructure.
“We’re not talking about clear-cutting,” says Gollner. In forested areas, it’s about reducing the number of shrubs that fires use as a ladder to climb into trees, creating the kind of towering “crown fires” that hop from treetop to treetop. If the fire can’t make it into the treetops, “the fire is half as tall, and it’s not spreading as fast,” he continues. “That makes a big difference. You now have a fire where it’s safe enough for firefighters to operate. You give yourself that extra time for people to evacuate.”
For utilities in the ever-drier American West, burying lines is costly, but it is still less costly than the billions of dollars in damages unleashed by a single blaze, or the incalculable loss of human life. It’s not a panacea, but it’s a start. “I would say that the impact of not undergrounding, from a societal cost perspective, is far greater,” says Singh. “In these types of conditions it’s too expensive not to do it.”