When Naphtali Knox served as Palo Alto's top city planner in the 1970s, burying power lines underground was considered a worthy and deeply valued endeavor.
"The city was pursuing it for beautification reasons," Knox said.
Moving electric lines underground was consistent with what city leaders believed Palo Alto should look like and with the policies of the city's guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan.
"The Comprehensive Plan talks about the importance, for example, of Embarcadero Road as an entrance to the city from 101 and how beautiful it can be if we can get the wires down," Knox recalled.
The effort was fairly new and wildly popular. Members of the City Council, who at the time were at odds over issues of growth and development, set aside their differences and voted 14-0 in 1965 to adopt a law requiring all newly constructed developments to include underground utilities.
Council members also established a process for creating underground districts, with a special focus on business districts and prominent traffic arteries.
The top priority for the council and the Utilities Department was aesthetics, said Knox, who worked as the city's planning director from 1972 to 1975 and as the director of planning and community environment from 1975-81.
Oregon Avenue, Foothills Park, Alexis Drive and El Camino Real became Palo Alto's first four underground districts. By the end of the 1970s, there were 20 districts, as neighborhoods including Crescent Park, Professorville and Evergreen Park joined the trend.
Currently, there are 45, and eight others are proposed, according to the Utilities Department.
For much of the program's existence, city leaders and utility officials routinely provided estimates of how long it would take to underground wires across the entire city. As recently as 2014, the city converted electrical wires for about 200 homes per year to undergrounding. At that pace, officials estimated, it would take about 100 years — and about $296.1 million — to convert the remaining 14,100 homes that had overhead wires.
Since then, however, the program has largely run aground. Palo Alto no longer has an annual target for underground conversion and it has no short- or long-term plans to bury utility lines in any residential neighborhoods.
Thanks to a combination of high costs, recently established environmental goals and a mid-1990s shift toward "pad mounted" equipment, the Utilities Department has effectively stopped undergrounding utilities in residential neighborhoods and has little appetite for resuming the practice.
Today, the city has about 472 miles of distribution lines, of which 211 miles (45%) are overhead and 261 miles (55%) are underground, according to the Electric Utility Financial Plan. It also has about 2,000 overhead line transformers and 1,100 underground and substation transformers.
DEMAND FOR UNDERGROUNDING
Prior projections of undergrounding the entire city within a century now seem optimistic, if not impossible.
It's not for lack of interest. Residents still routinely request undergrounding of electric equipment, whether for aesthetic reasons or for reliability. Nobody likes to lose power when a car hits a utility pole, a tree topples onto power lines, a hungry squirrel exercises poor judgment or a Mylar balloon short circuits a transformer.
Abby Boyd, who lives in the Meadow Park neighborhood, is among those who believe putting lines underground is a matter of both beauty and safety. From her backyard in the Eichler-style south Palo Alto residential enclave, she can see two large eucalyptus trees, two utility poles and at least eight power lines that stretch and dangle at various elevations above her fence.
It's not hard for Boyd to imagine scenarios in which a power line falls on a tree or vice versa.
"I just think it's a hazard for a variety of reasons," she said in an interview.
Barring a major policy reversal, residents like Boyd are unlikely to see their blocks' power lines buried any time soon. In the past decades, underground districts have become both rarer and smaller.
The city launched 10 districts in the 1960s, nine in the 1970s and 11 in the 1980s. The number dropped to six in the 1990s, the decade during which the city stopped burying transformers underground, and five in the first decade of the 2000s. There was just one underground district initiated in the 2010s and two so far in the 2020s.
The Utilities Department's current plans offer proponents of undergrounding little reason to feel hopeful. The city's 2023-27 Electric Utility Plan states that "there will be a reduction in funding for undergrounding conversion from overhead to underground as current projects are completed and others are delayed."
And Palo Alto's current capital budget, which the council approved in June, envisions only two overhead-to-underground conversions in the next four years, both on busy arteries. One project would be along Embarcadero Road, between Middlefield Road and Emerson Street; the other on a small segment Alma Street between Addison and Melville avenues. Neither project is slated to begin until either 2026 or 2027.
WITHOUT A TRACE
Palo Alto's shift away from undergrounding occurred with surprisingly little public debate. The council, which routinely spends hours debating issues like shadow impacts, building setbacks, the noise impacts of electric appliances and whether accessory dwelling units should be allowed to have underground garages, hasn't had a substantive discussion about the city's strategy for moving electrical equipment underground in well over a decade.
Its last public hearing relating to the topic took place in 2019, when council members debated the narrow topic of whether residents in existing underground districts should have to pay extra to cover the costs of placing transformers underground rather than in pad-mounted enclosures that some found unsightly. (The council decided that they should.)
The Utilities Advisory Commission has also been relatively disengaged. During an April discussion of its annual priorities, the commission added undergrounding as one of its priority topics for the coming year. In doing so, commissioners argued that the city needs to do better when it comes to clearly laying out its strategy for undergrounding utilities and informing residents about this strategy.
"This is something I've been asked about by multiple residents who obviously want to underground in their neighborhood," Commissioner Phil Metz said at the April 12 discussion. "Do we need a set of guiding principles to tell us when we underground and we don't? … It seems like we need some kind of a way to decide, or maybe it already exists and I'm just not aware of it."
Catherine Elvert, communications manager at City of Palo Alto Utilities, told the Weekly that the utility has been moving away from installing underground electric equipment for several reasons. Underground equipment tends to have a shortened service life, can be more difficult to maintain and presents safety concerns for the public and utility workers, Elvert said in an email.
"By installing equipment above ground, as in the case with pad-mounted transformers, utilities experience better electrical service reliability, longer service life and improved safety," Elvert wrote.
Money is also a factor. In the past, Palo Alto relied on AT&T to share some of the costs of undergrounding electric lines. While the telecom's participation in some projects is required by California Public Utilities Commission, the commission's underground tariff does not apply to most residential neighborhoods, according to utilities staff.
In the past, AT&T funded its underground structures in some residential areas even though it was not strictly required to do so under state law. But in 2011, utilities staff reported that AT&T had informed them that it will "strictly follow the tariff in all future undergrounding projects," according to a 2011 report.
Elvert noted that there is still a path for neighborhoods like Boyd's to obtain underground utilities. It would require the council to adopt an ordinance establishing an "underground district." In order for this district to be formed and approved, Elvert wrote in the email, "All customers in the district area must agree to the undergrounding requirements and pay any associated fees for the conversion."
The homeowner could face a bill anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000, with the exact amount determined by factors such as the type of underground district they're in, the distance from the electrical service box to the homeowner's panel and the location of the trenching work, according to the city.
WHEN SOME UNDERGROUNDING IS ABOVE GROUND
For most neighborhoods, lobbying for underground districts, getting unanimous support and then paying for the installation would be a tall, if not insurmountable, task. But it's made even more complicated by the fact that unlike in the past, today's underground districts aren't truly underground.
While electric wires in new districts are buried, transformers and other associated equipment are now pad-mounted — placed in above-ground boxes whose utilitarian appearance complicates any discussion of aesthetic improvements.
The trend toward pad-mounting equipment started in April 1996, when the council approved a rule that states, "All new equipment in underground areas required to provide Electric Service to a Customer will be pad-mounted."
Like other utilities across the state, Palo Alto began to favor pad-mounted transformers in the 1990s after concluding that such equipment is safer, cheaper and more reliable than underground lines. Underground vaults require workers to enter a very confined space with limited room to work, with high temperatures that result from limited ventilation and hot oil in the transformer, a Utilities Department report states.
They also tend to accumulate water and run-off such as oil, which can "attack" the metal shell of the transformer, and debris that can prevent heat from escaping the equipment, the report states. Excessive heat can cause a transformer to fail, the report further notes.
Pad-mounted equipment, however, "is always exposed to ambient air flow unlike the subsurface equipment. Pad-mounted equipment is also less susceptible to water intrusion and contaminants."
But while rooted in safety concerns, the rule change also had the effect of turning what was once a broadly popular effort into an increasingly contentious one. Boxes with transformers may not seem out of place along busy commercial corridors and traffic arteries, but residents in single-family neighborhoods have shown little appetite for living next to them.
"Nobody wants to have a transformer," Utilities Director Dean Batchelor said during an April public hearing on undergrounding. "Everyone wants them underground, but no one wants the box in front of their home."
During a June discussion of electrical grid updates, Batchelor suggested that some neighborhoods would need three or more pad-mounted transformers to accommodate underground electricity (in Green Acres, the upgrade called for eight transformers for about 100 residences).
Who, he asked, will be the lucky one who will now have to see the box all of a sudden?
"I think it's going to be some long conversations and we're going to have to work through that," Batchelor said during the meeting of the utilities commission.
UPGRADING THE GRID
The city's forthcoming effort to modernize its electrical grid — its largest such upgrade in decades — will further hamper any new undergrounding initiatives in residential neighborhoods.
The grid project will cost between $220 million and $306 million and will involve converting 4 kV lines to 12 kV so that they could power the hoped-for proliferation of electric vehicles, hot water heat pumps and other electric appliances. It is key to Palo Alto meeting its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline.
And it will almost certainly start with overhead lines.
The city has "prioritized upgrading the overhead electric distribution system rather than undergrounding utilities," Elvert said.
"Our ability to meet the current sustainability goals of reducing carbon emissions by 2030 requires the electric system to be upgraded as quickly as possible," she said in an email.
Even if the city were to move ahead with undergrounding at an accelerated pace, that conversion would take decades to achieve. And Elvert noted it would also cost at least three times as much upgrading the overhead system.
Tomm Marshall, assistant director for engineering at the Utilities Department, made it clear during the June discussion of grid modernization that underground districts will be last in line when it comes to grid upgrades.
Utilities officials are bracing for more tough discussions about pad-mounted equipment. To date, friction over the above-ground boxes has been limited to the few areas where the city has upgraded existing underground equipment that has reached the end of its useful life.
When the city proposed installing pad-mounted equipment in 2019 in Green Acres 1 which had long enjoyed the benefit of a fully buried utility system, residents took umbrage. Nina Bell, head of the Green Acres I association, told the council that her neighbors remodeled and rebuilt their homes based on an expectation that they would be living in a "neighborhood without wires or poles or pad-mounted cubes."
With the citywide grid modernization looming, such complaints are likely to grow more common, and utilities staff are preparing for, quite possibly, tougher stances on mounted equipment.
"Are we going to try to negotiate or are we just going to say, ‘It's got to go here'?" Marshall said during a June hearing. "We don't want to be in a public relations nightmare with our customers out there either. There's a balance that we have to do on that."
A REVERSAL, THANKS TO FIBER
A similar cost calculus applies to Palo Alto's long-awaited effort to upgrade its municipal fiber-optic network. Here, residents in already-underground districts will in most cases find themselves in the back, not the front, of the line.
Known as "Fiber to the Premises," the effort advanced last year when the council approved a plan created by its consultant, Magellan Consulting, for expanding the network. The initial phase would cover 7,160 homes and about 875 businesses in various sections of the city, including parts of Downtown North, College Terrace and Midtown.
Most of these areas share a common feature: overhead lines.
John Honker, president of Magellan, told the utilities commission last summer that the goal is to focus initially on areas of the city that have both demonstrated higher demand for fiber and where the cost of doing the conversion would be lower.
Construction of the aerial equipment, rather than underground equipment, would be easier and allow the city to connect more customers for less money, Honker said. As such, he recommended focusing on areas with aerial lines and large customer bases.
"The benefit of having some aerial construction is that that could go quicker if the make-ready and pole-prep work is done relatively efficiently," Honker told the utilities commission in August 2022. "You have that going for you.
"The underground construction is hard work. It's going to be difficult — we can't sugarcoat it."
Despite these financial and engineering complications, the Utilities Advisory Commission acknowledged earlier this year the importance of undergrounding to residents and agreed that the topic warrants more discussion in light of forthcoming grid modernization and fiber expansion.
"It's a good time, especially as we're starting to roll out fiber, or small portions of fiber," commission Chair Lauren Segal said at the April discussion, "because undergrounding projects will have an impact on which districts we start fiber."
"If we're about to underground a district, we wouldn't want to put fiber up in there."
Commissioner Robert Phillips concurred and said it's important for the city to bring more transparency to the underground discussion. He said he often has people ask him about the city's plans for undergrounding various neighborhoods, including their own.
"It doesn't necessarily mean we need a day and time, but certainly more outreach to the community about what's going on would be very useful," Phillips said.
Boyd, for her part, hopes the city will reverse the recent trend and go back to burying lines.
She acknowledged the concerns in other neighborhoods about pad-mounted equipment but suggested that this can be mitigated by placing boxes away from homes and closer intersections.
The city can also do what Santa Cruz did with its traffic signal boxes and invite artists to paint murals and other decorations to improve the aesthetics.
"Like everything else, people learn how to do things better, and this is an idea that has been explored in other places," Boyd said. "The city of Palo Alto does studies all the time. They might want to look around and try to find ways to mitigate these problems."
Knox also said he believes that any major project involving the city's electrical grid should seriously consider undergrounding — a topic that became more urgent after last winter's severe storms toppled overhead lines throughout the region, causing power outages.
"If new money is going to be spent for the grid, it ought to go underground," Knox said. "It's just something that was started so long ago and abandoned that we should have been doing."