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Palo Alto quietly abandons decades-long program to put overhead utilities underground

Original post made on Sep 28, 2023

With little public debate, Palo Alto has largely abandoned its once popular program that buries power lines underground in residential neighborhoods. Some residents want to see the effort continue.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, September 28, 2023, 7:37 AM

Comments (25)

Posted by Local Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 28, 2023 at 8:32 am

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The cost benefit ratio ratio just is not there to underground wires except for the foothills. We are running a huge unfunded city employee retirement deficit that needs make up funding. Electrification is 100s of millions, we need a second electric line into the city and grade separation is also very expensive. I too wish the city had unlimited funds but it does not. If you believe so much in it, then I propose put it on the ballot with a commesurate tax to cover it and let the voters decide if its worth paying the extra tax.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2023 at 9:15 am

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This is what makes Silicon Valley the butt of jokes all over the world. Here we invent all the technology the rest of the world uses, but we can't put our power underground and we lose power when it rains!

We have ugly wires hanging all over town that is more like third world views.


Posted by just sayin'
a resident of another community
on Sep 28, 2023 at 10:15 am

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If you think the wires are unsightly, take a look at the actual telephone poles!

Posted by BobH
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 28, 2023 at 10:19 am

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At the rate the under grounding was going, this is hardly surprising. A few years ago, I attended some Utility Advisory Commission meetings, I learned that the underground utilities had a 30 year life time. This mean that they were having to replace the first set of installations, further slowing down the installation of new ones. My conclusion was that it would never be finished at the current installation rate.

Where I live, the utilities are on poles behind my house. Was I charged for under grounding of the power lines elsewhere in the city? If they are going to stop doing it, should everyone with above ground utilities get a refund? Surely this was part of the utility rates.

Posted by Duveneck
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 28, 2023 at 10:23 am

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I’ve not been an advocate of over head electrical lines ever since high winds blew tree branches (still attached to healthy trees) into power lines, causing sparks that ignited the shakes on my absent neighbor’s roof. These power lines run above the fences at the back of properties and are partially hidden. Fortunately, the resulting smoke was seen quickly and the PAFD responded immediately. However, if it had not been seen, many surrounding homes would have been affected.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 28, 2023 at 10:43 am

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Of course there was no debate about something this major since PA bases its annual priorities on "surveys" that get 343 responses. They love pretending that there's community involvement here while ignoring all the people complaining about the frequency and duration of power outages who want refunds for service outages (which even PG&E grants).

The headline "Palo Alto quietly abandons decades-long program..." whitewashes the city's long history of sneakily ignoring real concerns WHILE wasting OUR money.

PS: We're STILL waiting for our rebates in the Miriam Green lawsuit against CPAU for overcharging us. Maybe we can celebrate with a 10-yr anniversary party? Let's do another meaningless survey.

The statement about how those of us who paid to be undergrounded decades ago have to go to the back of the line for the absurdly costly fiber to the home project is sadly laughable on many counts, including the fact that the city "leafers" A) couldn't answer questions about how undergrounded neighborhoods would get fiber for a month and B) then asked ME which neighborhoods were undegrounded.

The city fiber "survey" on the $144,000,000 fiber project was the height of arrogance because A) there was no way to say we DID NOT want it at any of the 13 price points they asked about and B) they were already taking advance deposits so they knew they were going to shove this down our throats.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 28, 2023 at 11:00 am

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What an awesome and well-researched story! Thanks and big kudos to Gennady Sheyner and Chris Lee!

Re: "Was I charged for under grounding of the power lines elsewhere in the city? If they are going to stop doing it, should everyone with above ground utilities get a refund? Surely this was part of the utility rates."

IIRC the zones getting undergrounded had to pay at the time (our zone was done in the 70s). Over the years, the utility rates were indeed supposedly also covering maintenance/repair/replacement of lines, poles, transformers and so forth. Maybe instead that was the money the City siphoned off every year from CPAU to add to the City budget?

In any case, the problem with the de-undergrounding existing transformers is not just that the new metal boxes are large and ugly, but that they make noise (from fans) and the homeowner has no say about their location. It's like having an A/C unit plopped into your front yard without being able to locate it toward the edge or back of your property. It's also my understanding that replacing like-with-like (underground with underground for already-undergrounded locations) costs the homeowner more like $30,000 than $10,000, adding injury to insult. :(

Posted by Evergreen Park Observer
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 28, 2023 at 11:39 am

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Can we just face up to the fact that our electrical grid and all its parts are not working well, and that we have no good solution to that? Surely someone can design a better box if that is what us required. Could we please see a well thought plan that takes costs and quality of life factors into account? The lines are underground on my street, and we generally are not affected by power outages surrounding us. Aesthetically better and reliable. Create an alternate solution that also looks good and works.

Posted by Andy Protter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2023 at 12:26 pm

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Very few town initiatives will have as much a substantive impact on the beauty of our town and the value of our homes. In addition few initiatives like this one will help preserve the beautiful yet fragile tree canopy that our town enjoys. Take a few minutes to visit some of the areas that have the cables underground so you can appreciate this.

Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2023 at 1:42 pm

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Who woulda thunk? It is Palo Alto after all, the self proclaimed "leader" in all things technology.
LOL !!!

Posted by Silver Linings
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2023 at 2:09 pm

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This was a well done article, but I’d like a little more information please. Some things don’t seem to add up.

First, it’s my understanding that one of the advantages of undergrounding is that you then have conduits for lines that make it relatively easy to pull fiber (which can exist with electrical lines) through. That 3rd scenario of pulling fiber through existing underground conduits (which is done all the time) does not seem to have been differentiated from cost overhead vs. new undergrounding. That 3rd scenario is probably complicated by public vs. private access for companies like AT&T. But that’s a separate issue.

Secondly, I’m having trouble understanding what was written about Greenacres. Greenacres I is one of the smallest neighborhoods on the City. Why would it need so many aboveground transformers? Also, Greenacres II is a relatively small neighborhood, with undergrounding—I see above ground transformers there already. Am I missing something? And, the City in the past has a bad history of running roughshod over the public there, then being surprised (and retaliatory) when they vociferously object.

The fiber should be prioritized based on neighborhoods near our schools. The areas mentioned near startup businesses already often have existing access to T1 lines (that they probably paid for themselves) but neighborhoods near schools could really benefit from fiber.

Lastly, financing something like this should be more fair to all residents and can happen through bonds. Typical 30 year terms make the cost manageable for most, especially if the City owned system results in reduced access costs.

Posted by neighbor1200
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 28, 2023 at 2:42 pm

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This is a huge disappointment. I was told the city had a program to move the wires underground or I would have applied to do it when we renovated 25 years ago.

Posted by Forever Name
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2023 at 3:38 pm

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But never fear, City Council just voted to add two more paid holidays for city workers! (Virtue signaling at its best.) So in addition to PA city residents/taxpayers who will fail to see universal and uniformly undergrounded utilities, you'll be paying city workers two more days a year not to work at all.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 28, 2023 at 4:11 pm

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Greenacres I is in underground district 15 on the map above, which is actually slightly bigger than district 6 containing Greenacres II. Dist 15 also contains Fletcher School, Terman Park and the Terman Apartments, which may explain the larger-than-expected transformer count. The mooted "de-parking" of Terman Park, presumably so PAUSD or others can develop that land, would also lead to an increased need for transformer capacity for such development.

I believe new construction or rebuilding that requires additional transformer capacity (e.g. upping service from 100A to 200A or 400A) has resulted in individual above-ground boxes in recent years, which may explain your observations in Greenacres II.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2023 at 4:13 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

With grade separations, for once, please do south PA first before the money runs out and the city never gets to us on that too. North PA already has FIVE existing grade separations. South Palo Alto has ZERO. Nada. NONE. That will be a huge problem when electrified train service increases the frequency of at-grade crossing closures.

Posted by laurent
a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 28, 2023 at 6:02 pm

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Running a huge unfunded city employee retirement deficit is the main reason we the city can not work on sizeable infrastructure projects.
Since the .com boom and the showering of benefits, cities have not kept up their infrastructure let alone improve it.
Just look at the state of our common transportations, cities had 25 years to improve it and see where we are at today. China build the number one high speed rail network in 10 years, we can not even get an electric train between palo alto and sf. (anyone has taken caltrain lately, dirty, smelly toilets, slow...)

Posted by Silver Linings
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 29, 2023 at 1:20 am

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@ Mondoman
Thanks for replying.

The article didn't say whether the above-ground transformers in GAI were put in, but there is one over by Terman park and has been for a long time. There are others throughout GAII, have been for a long time, not just recently.

Is the article saying there needs to be more? That GAI needs an upgrade with more than it already has? The article just wasn't clear. If the reason for all those transformers was the Terman Apartments and the school, the transformers would go on those properties, not in people's yards, so that doesn't really make sense as the reason.

Again, the article indicated that there would need to be just a few in most neighborhoods, but so many more in GAI and GAII--but again, those are some of the smallest neighborhoods in the City, they already have underground and boxes around the neighborhoods. The article was just too vague. (The only thing that wasn't vague was an ongoing disdain for those neighborhoods, which have had to counter the City trying to run a road right through GAI as a shortcut from Arastradero to El Camino by the Cabana Hotel, selling off Fletcher School site for luxury apartments, turning the cross street at Fletcher into a thoroughfare, and of course trying to sell the zoning in GAII instead of putting equivalent money on that side of town as in the North. As much as I appreciate Shaynor's well-written work, he still seems to have a chip on his shoulder like City employees for those neighborhoods simply because they don't want to be run roughshod over. The only thing that was clear about that section was that one of the neighbor's was against something. It really needed more details.)

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2023 at 8:55 pm

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It looks like we will stop spending money on studies for underground utilties, and funnel more money into studying the transit money grab. We just can't make decisions that make sense. The idea of spending 100 years and "$296.1 million — to convert the remaining 14,100 homes that had overhead wires" is beyond ridiculous. That's over $20k per home. This decision should not have taken this long to reach its inevitable dead end.

I have a couple of questions. For all the people who bought homes where utility lines are visible -- were you blindfolded at the open house? Did you sign a contract promising that utilties would be underground at any time, ever?

PA seems to be trying to dig gopher holes everywhere, making any structure on or near them a risky proposition. This is just about utilities. Where the city is brokering utilities to residents who shouldn't have to pay for endless increases to pay for unwise politicking and endless studies.

I have calculated how much it costs to flush the toilet and i glued a piggy bank to the lid of the tank. I put up a sign that says, if you flush, put 50 cents in the piggy bank. Most months, I find the piggy bank doesn't take in enough to pay the bill. What's wrong with this picture?

Same with gas and electricity. I use less and less of it, and pay more and more for it. I'm sick of paying for more studies. We will have more outages as the trees grow taller and are not pruned properly to prevent service outages due to limbs down. The squirrel excuse has already been used. Basically we are overdue for revitalizing the network to prevent what happened last winter. Instead of studying some futuristic impossibility, CPAU should be studying how to upgrade the network at THEIR OWN COST. Not on my dime. We are already paying for this, if you study the bill and look at all of the fees associated with bringing utilities to any dwelling.

"The city of Palo Alto does studies all the time." Boy howdy.

Posted by Jack
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 2, 2023 at 9:37 am

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If the program is to be closed down, it would be nice to have a report on why it was not successful and lessons learned. Maybe such a report already exists?

Other towns with less money than Palo Alto have done undergrounding projects successfully (Oakland foothills for example) so I'm curious why things stalled here. Were we using the wrong funding model? Are there physical impediments specific to Palo Alto? Judging from comments here it doesn't seem like a lack of homeowner interest.

I would happily pay $50k tomorrow to have our power lines buried, in part because it would boost our neighborhood's visual appeal.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 2, 2023 at 10:30 am

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I'd be interested to hear who made this "quiet" decision without any public input. Isn't that what quality journalism is supposed to cover?

Posted by Book Em
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Oct 3, 2023 at 10:46 am

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Of course it was ended without a whisper.

The most valuble homes along the creek in north PA have underground utilities.

Why bother now with the south.

This was promised to be completed years ago.

So sad that this has not been abandoned.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 3, 2023 at 12:56 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

@ Book Em
We live in a nice section of N Palo Alto, have power lines running right behind us and were not included. I am disappointed though the lines haven’t caused trouble for twenty years. Fingers crossed.
Insofar as discussing the beauty of PA, once again I entreat our government authorities to take a basic step (the City, County and Caltrans) clean up the dry, tall, unsightly weeds and trash at the major gateway to,our city, 101 and Embarcadero and Oregon Expressway, all directions/cloverleafs/exits/entrances.
It is AWFUL that this is such a mess, visibility of drivers is sometimes compromised, the dry weeds are a fire risk and this region should be cleaned up.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 3, 2023 at 1:51 pm

Online Name is a registered user.


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."

This was obvious to those of us paying attention to the city's push for fiber but NOT to responsible city staff that wasn't even aware some neighborhoods had been undergrounded! It took them more than a month to respond to questions about undergrounded fiber and then another MONTH to ask me, a regular taxpayer, which other neighborhoods had been undergrounded!

The city "survey" gave us no way to reject Fiber, esp. since that "survey" asked for advance deposits FOR fiber!

Having pushed its $144,000,000 Fiber Project and hired consultants with little or no local knowledge, it's not surprising that the city's cash-constrained. Obviously they all need a few more paid holidays for reflection while unfunded pension liabilities keep soaring

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 3, 2023 at 6:47 pm

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I agree with you on the weeds. This week's city council meeting did include approving big contracts with at least three companies for cleaning and landscape maintenance services, all with hundreds of pages of photos in the legislative document packet showing exactly what areas are covered and what actions are to be taken. You may find what you are looking for in there.

@Silver Linings
My info on the transformers/equipment boxes in GA I is mostly second- or third- hand. Undergrounding in GA1 was originally done in the early 1970s - electricity, telephone and cable.

30+ years later, CPAU apparently decided they no longer wanted to install equipment in the underground vaults, without consulting with homeowners/ratepayers. At first, this applied to new construction (and there are a few by houses built in the last 10-15 years), but sometime in the 2010s, CPAU suddenly notified GA I homeowners that they would have new metal electrical equipment boxes appearing on their properties as replacements for the formerly-underground equipment.

Understandably, GA I homeowners were shocked and much hubbub ensued. Perhaps in order to encourage acquiescence, CPAU quoted very high prices (tens of thousands of dollars) to homeowners who wanted their equipment to remain underground. I think this is what Nina Bell was protesting at the City Council meeting. In the end, the council supported charging the very high charge to keep status quo, but CPAU has decided not to proceed for now, apparently fearing more homeowner backlash.

As you note, installing equipment boxes in the Terman area is much less of an aesthetic/noise problem. Perhaps the large count of transformers is the total including those, but only a smaller number GA I are truly problematic.

My personal impression is that CPAU has not been willing to meaningfully engage with the homeowners on this, instead pushing it off as far as possible in the future and hoping the issue will go away.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2023 at 1:55 am

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I suspect that if we have another wet winter we will have many outages. The bottom line has to be dependability. We are far from having that now. Efficiency and reliability are something Palo Alto does not value.

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