October 29, 2019

CALIFORNIA AT THE CROSSROADS: “California power lines spark wildfires and prompt blackouts. Why not just bury them?”, asked a headline in USA Today earlier this month:

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. 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.

Or, California could practice responsible forestry solutions to reduce the chance of fires.  But then, that would lead to this headline from back in August at the San Francisco Chronicle: “‘Radical’ tree trimming: Critics say PG&E’s rush to stop fires may hurt California forests.”

As Rich Lowry writes today at NRO, “Decades of misgovernance and misplaced priorities have left the state fighting fire with . . . blackouts:”

California governor Gavin Newsom, who has to try to evade responsibility for this debacle while presiding over it, blames “dog-eat-dog capitalism” for the state’s current crisis. It sounds like he’s referring to robber barons who have descended on the state to suck it dry of profits while burning it to the ground. But Newsom is talking about one of the most regulated industries in the state — namely California’s energy utilities, which answer to the state’s public utilities commission.

This is not exactly an Ayn Rand operation. The state could have, if it wanted, pushed the utilities to focus on the resilience and safety of its current infrastructure — implicated in some of the state’s most fearsome recent fires — as a top priority. Instead, the commission forced costly renewable-energy initiatives on the utilities. Who cares about something as mundane as properly maintained power lines if something as supposedly epically important — and politically fashionable — as saving the planet is at stake?

Meanwhile, California has had a decades-long aversion to properly clearing forests. The state’s leaders have long been in thrall to the belief that cutting down trees is somehow an offense against nature, even though thinning helps create healthier forests. Biomass has been allowed to build up, and it becomes the kindling for catastrophic fires.

As Chuck DeVore of the Texas Public Policy Foundation points out, a report of the Western Governors’ Association warned of this effect more than a decade ago, noting that “over time the fire-prone forests that were not thinned, burn in uncharacteristically destructive wildfires.”

In 2016, then-governor Jerry Brown actually vetoed a bill that had unanimously passed the state legislature to promote the clearing of trees dangerously close to power lines. Brown’s team says this legislation was no big deal, but one progressive watchdog called the bill “neither insignificant or small.”

On top of all this, more people live in remote areas susceptible to fires, in part because of the high cost of housing in more built-up areas.

Fortunately, as Jazz Shaw writes at Hot Air, Gov. Newsom has stumbled into the perfect solution to all of his problems: “What to do with such a prickly situation? The answer is obvious. He’ll just get rid of PG&E. And the person to take care of that little chore would obviously be Warren Buffet because he could easily purchase the company that’s now in bankruptcy and facing hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in fines and lawsuits:”

I’m not sure who should break this news to Governor Newsom. Perhaps one of our readers could volunteer. But the fact is that Warren Buffet is incredibly wealthy for a reason. He doesn’t pour his money down ratholes with no chance of showing a profit. It’s not his job to save California from its own folly. He’s probably already regretting the fact that his energy company is heavily invested in PG&E and taking massive hits on their shares as it is.

While Buffett has long been a lefty politically, his presumed forthcoming refusal to Newsom’s kind offer is a reminder of the late historian Robert Conquest’s First Law of Politics: “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.”

Thus, California’s woes continue. Or as Lowry concludes, “California’s overriding goal should have been safe, cheap, and reliable power, a public good so basic that it’s easy to take for granted. The state’s focus on ideological fantasies has instead ensured it has none of the above.”

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