Penny Wise…

Investigators looking into those raging, destructive fires in California a couple of months ago have determined that the fires were caused by power lines that came into contact with each other during high winds.

According to Engineering News Record (I know–you have a copy on your coffee table, don’t you?),

The resulting arc ignited dry brush on Dec. 4, 2017 , starting the blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties that resulted in two deaths and blackened more than 440 square miles (1,139 square kilometers), according to the investigation headed by the Ventura County Fire Department .

The arc “deposited hot, burning or molten material onto the ground, in a receptive fuel bed, causing the fire,” said a statement accompanying the investigative report.

Investigators said the Thomas fire first began as two separate blazes started about 15 minutes apart that joined together. They determined Southern California Edison was responsible for both ignitions…

The fire destroyed more than 1,000 structures before it was contained 40 days after it began near the city of Santa Paula . A firefighter and a civilian were killed.

If the damage from the fire itself wasn’t destructive enough,

A month after the blaze started, a downpour on the burn scar unleashed a massive debris flow that killed 21 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in the seaside community of Montecito . Two people have not been found.

Here’s my complaint. (Okay, my diatribe.)  The ravages of the fire–the destruction of homes, the deaths, the dislocations– could have been avoided had the power lines been buried. And it isn’t just California, and it isn’t just the enormous amount of damage done every year by downed or otherwise unsafe power lines–there’s also an aesthetic issue, at least in cities, where poles and lines clutter the sky.

The immediate response to this complaint is always the same: burying power lines is too expensive. That response is typical of America’s approach to infrastructure generally, which can be perfectly summed up by the old adage “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Over the long term, buried power lines will require less maintenance and will cause far less damage. (Southern California Edison is now in bankruptcy, thanks to the fires.)

It’s the same story with other infrastructure. Streets that are properly paved and repaired last longer and require less annual attention. (Indianapolis’ third-world streets are the result of many years of “fixing” recurring potholes with haphazard and ungainly patches and the application of paper-thin asphalt coatings to untouched, steadily deteriorating street beds.)

There’s an old saying that “long term” to a politician means “until the next election.” The political system’s incentives are all perverse: spend as little as you can (pretend it’s the result of “efficiency”); whatever you do, don’t raise taxes; do the repairs that you absolutely must as cheaply as you possibly can, and let the next guy worry about it.

The problem is, when we don’t do it right–we have to do it over. And over.


  1. I was raised by parents who taught me to buy the best quality product that I can afford to make sure that it would last. That lesson applied to all purchases that were to be used over a lengthy period of time. Then I must also be sure to maintain the product well to ensure that it lasts as long as possible.

    Quality over quantity. This has served me well over my lifetime. You end up spending less money over time when you purchase quality in the first place and then maintain it. No matter what the product is, it doesn’t wear out as quickly as something made cheaply.

    Yes, your statement that “long term” to a politician means until the next election is so true. Unfortunately, it seems that election cycles are nonstop anymore.

    Since the Koch brothers and their fellow billionaires were able to take over the GOP and push “corporate welfare and NO TAXES” the standard of living for those of us who do pay taxes has continued to decline over the past three decades.

    If those of us on the left don’t figure out a way to stop the GOP’s nazi-like propaganda machine that has managed to take republican voters’ small brains hostage, we can count on the pace of our decline rapidly increasing.

  2. If we don’t pay for it in taxes, we will pay for it in automobile repairs, new tires, loss of property, and diminution of our general standards of living. Taxes are the only way to spread the cost and the pain. Speaking of pain, perhaps we should use a relative pain index to determine the top tax rates. Currently, we only allow poor and lower middle income households to feel any economic pain from the payment of income, FICA, and sales tax.

  3. The point of today’s article is our spineless politicians who approach politics on bent knees trying to please the powerful.

    New Zealand shows the way to a different path: Christchurch attacks: New Zealand brings in sweeping gun-law changes.

    Assault rifles and military-style semi-automatics have been banned in New Zealand after Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, announced sweeping and immediate changes to gun laws following the Christchurch mosque shootings.

    “I absolutely believe there will be a common view among New Zealanders, those who use guns for legitimate purposes, and those who have never touched one, that the time for the mass and easy availability of these weapons must end. And today they will,” said Ardern.
    Here in the USA no matter how many mass shootings there are any talk of gun control is bitterly resisted.

  4. One other point to make:
    “Investigators have determined that PG&E’s equipment caused 17 of the fatal conflagrations that torched the North Bay Wine Country and nearby regions in October 2017. Prosecutors said Tuesday that they will not file charges against PG&E for those fires.

    In February, PG&E reported to federal regulators that it is “probable” state investigators would also determine PG&E’s equipment ignited the deadly Camp Fire that roared through Butte County in November 2018, killing 85 people and essentially destroyed the town of Paradise. An official cause of that fire has not yet been released by Cal Fire.”
    When ever something likes this happens the companies always seem to find a way to evade any responsibility via bankruptcy leaving the victims high and dry. The High Command in these corporations never seem to found liable for their acts or omissions in their leadership roles.

  5. I realize this is a bit off topic, but I think it’s amazing that after a fire of that magnitude and rain/flood/landslide that inspectors and can still determine what caused the fire and that it was actually 2 fires that merged.

    I don’t know enough about the science of it, so maybe it’s easier to determine than it sounds but on the surface I think it’s very impressive.

  6. The utilities are correct that burying power lines would be expensive, but there is another expense that is not mentioned in Sheila’s article (with which I agree). There probably would be fewer “breaks” in buried power lines, but when they did occur they would be much harder to locate. In addition, adding lines to meet the demand for more service would be much harder to do and more expensive.

  7. Let’s move this “Penny Wise” issue from the entire nation’s crumbling infrastructure to our health care. I posted late comments a few days ago after reading that the Indianapolis City-County Council had approved almost $10 MILLION in tax breaks for Eli Lilly for building improves to develop insulin products. Insulin products produced by Eli Lilly cannot be afforded by countless diabetic patients here alone whose tax dollars will go to pay for Eli Lilly’s tax breaks. People throughout this country and in other nations cannot afford many medications produced by Eli Lilly; a major Big Pharma corporation. this issue, like underground power lines, will be brought to local City Councils for final yea or nay decisions. Regarding power lines; consider the many neighborhoods whose crime rates are aided by the lack of street lights at night. Warren Township Councilor David Ray bragged a few weeks ago about the 14 new streetlights being installed on Mitthoeffer Road between East Washington and East 10th Streets. The east side of Mitthoeffer is the closed and shuttered majority of Washington Square Mall and the many acres of empty parking lot were grass is growing in the cracked pavement.

    Regarding the wildfires in California; has Trump maintained his cutting disaster help to those areas as he continues to do in Puerto Rico. Our spineless Republican officials maintain the Trump status quo; even those states which have suffered heavy death counts due to lax gun laws with the NRA pays Republicans to keep in place. Penny wise and pound foolish regarding public education will insure the status quo is maintained well into the future.

  8. After the California fires, the forest service recommends a 30 ft separation of ground growth from residential and commercial properties near extended forest areas. Part of this is on the property owner. If roofs are not cleaned of natural debris frequently, you have ready kindling on your home. The searing heat raises the kindling point on roof tops placing the property at immediate risk. Soon after the fires, Harrison State Park graded a 30 ft fire break behind residential properties adjoining Park land. The rest is up to the owner to prevent property damage and loss of life. Several streets in Indianapolis are adjoined right up to the pavement with unattended overgrowth of trees, shrubs and undergrowth compounded by build up of litter no one can get to to clean up. It is a disaster waiting to happen if not a blatant lack of Hoosier pride in how our properties look to visitors and others. As usual, Sheila, I just love the way you rant so the rest of us can pile on. ?

  9. A couple years ago, I watched a documentary about Detroit’s water issues. One consultant was brought in to give advice on how to clean up the contamination. He got paid. His solutions didn’t work. Another consultant was brought in and he got paid. Still no improvement. A third consultant was brought in to study what had gone wrong with the two prior consultant’s “solutions.”

    He described it as a case of “IB-UB”. It seems the consultants were recommending short-sighted “solutions” and they were getting rich and some local officials were getting rich because of shortcuts and paybacks. “IB-UB” describes the mentality of short-term “fixes” in that consultants and officials will be long gone when the ineffectiveness is recognized. “I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone.” Yep, we seem to see that a lot.

  10. Just a word about Indianapolis streets. They are successful at keeping the tire places in business. Personally, I’d rather skip my yearly visit(s.)

  11. Southern California Edison’s liability is clear and potentially so immense that (from its vantage) a bankruptcy filing was a sensible response, but what of the rights to life and property of its victims? Are tort cases to be effectively decided in bankruptcy courts? The short answer is yes, and the return to the victims (less costs of administration) will be grossly inadequate.

    However, in keeping with Sheila’s observation of the penny wise and pound foolish adage, it may be the best justice we can do under current realities, so let’s look at alternatives for the future in trying to solve such exposure to disaster. Perhaps all utilities should be required by law to buy insurance policies (if available) to adequately cover such potential liabilities, though the downside is that such costs would be wrapped into rates so that the prospective victims would pay significantly higher rates for the services provided by such utilities. Perhaps both an underground and insurance for liability regime is the answer. The lessened risk of underground distribution should be reflected in lower premiums which would in turn help pay for the more expensive change from surface electrical lines to underground ones while reducing the risk of loss of life and property.

    So yes, such a plan would be more expensive in the short run and spineless (and perhaps bought) politicians would wheel out the usual reasons why we cannot afford this or other such plan designed to protect life and property, but such a plan might well be cheaper and far more sensitive to the protection of life and property than a continuation of the current Stone Age means of the distribution of electricity.

    Any of my fellow contributors have any ideas on what we can do to prevent another such catastrophe?

  12. If I own shares of Southern California Edison, I would expect to be forced by tort law to pay damages (weighted by number of shares owned) out of my pocket to the victims of the fire that my SCE caused.

    But of course that does not happen.

    So, WOW! I’m Scott-Free of any responsibility. Better yet, bankruptcy of the company may even save my original investment in shares. Thus, I will never be fully engaged in deciding who is on the board or who the board hires to run the company, nor will I worry myself over making policy. Proxy is good enough for me. The fact that Proxy never has to pay for its blunders is no skin off my nose.

    What a country!

  13. One thing that all engineers responsible for complex systems learn is that problems don’t get really solved until analysis has identified the “root cause’. Not the effect that immediately caused the problem but the cause that launched the chain of causes and effects that utimately lead to the objectionable effect.

    In the case of the California wildfires the root cause is climate change. The fact of more energy in the ocean and atmosphere caused by the building up of fuel waste indiscriminately dumped into the atmosphere causing the Santa Anna winds which caused the combustible conditions and the ignition from power wires that were designed and built for pre anthropogenic global warming conditions.

    Scientists know all about that root cause but there is another as well. That is the politicians and public more willing to learn from advertising by the businesses profiting from selling fuel than from scientists with the public interest foremost in their work.

    In short hand the real problem is the confluence of science illiteracy and pervasive media advertising.

  14. The root cause is human development, or in other words, overpopulation. Until we can finally put down the witches and warlocks of the Catholic Church and the rest of Superstition, Inc., and overcome the stupidity and ignorance of the third of human population who insist on incessantly following tribalism and nationalism, we will continue to be a species that is the equivalent of the folks who live in the house trailer held together by duct tape.

  15. tax cuts breed problems,and corprate greed. same issues over and over. drive a truck and see where you like to spend a morning in traffic,smellin fumes. infastructure is way beyond in need, electric grid poised for failure,with lives at stake. profit margins for investor,while the product suffers. until we tax the shit out of wall streets greed,and return wages that support life,(i mean life) and remakes main street as a viable market place again, we are just talkin shit.PGE just got caught,theres many others that are waiting to distroy something else. those republicans who support those tax cuts,this is what ya got, to them its for you to deal with.. while they laugh a path to the bank..

  16. Driving through Europe almost all of the electrical utilities are underground. I lived in England for a while and when they would have country wide gale force winds, the head line was about buildings damaged and trees down, but never about 50,000+ people without power.

    Having worked for IPL, a company that has been in business for more than 100 years, I did see some “old school” attitude to do things right. That was in direct conflict to the corporate direction we got from AES (owners of IPL). They were driven by the quarterly report on their dividends and as far as I could planning never went beyond the next quarter.

  17. I’m for cost-benefit analysis that is lacking on many of these issues. Stepping up lax regulations, more line and line area maintenance, and requiring greater fault detection and prevention devices would be much more cost effective than burying existing power lines. And cheaper to the user who would pay for the costs in any case. (Some have said or implied as much above)

    There are some other climate change related issues that need to be analyzed this way, such as the Green New Deal. Clearly we need a radical approach to climate change but subject to rigorous cost-benefit analysis, including the weighing of alternatives.

    I’ll drift off the subject a little and say, “Medicare for All” should also be subjected to the same analysis and alternative weighing.

    “Bury the Lines”, “Green New Deal” and “Medicare for All” aren’t far removed ifrom “Drain the Swamp”, and “Build the Wall”.

  18. Bringing this infrastructure issue to a local level: lovely Meridian-Kessler has the majority of their neighborhood views devoid of ugly utility poles due to buried power lines. Meanwhile, surrounding neighborhoods have less-than-desirable aesthetics with utility poles, transformers and power lines akimbo. The downed power line doesn’t fall far from the utility pole, does it?

    Imagine an Indianapolis whose skyline is entirely wiped clean of tangled cables and power lines and much less susceptible to lightning strikes and power outages from high winds, ice, snow, tornadoes, etc. Hence, lower property damage, fewer insurance claims, and perhaps decreased insurance rates.

    What a concept! Progressive actions that result in a safer and less costly environment for residents and corporate “citizens united” alike. Ahh, we can all dream, can’t we!

  19. I wouldn’t want to burst any bubbles, but burying power lines in California might even be more expensive than has been posited. And I’m not sure it’s possible to earthquake-proof the conduit for the cables. Just a random thought!

Comments are closed.