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California wildfires: PG&E will place 10,000 miles of electric lines underground

Fiona Kelliher and George Avalos, Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

Executives estimated that that the “starting point” for the project’s total cost is about $15 billion to $20 billion. Utility ratepayers are likely to foot the bill for these massive upgrades: PG&E plans to seek approval from the state Public Utilities Commission for more revenue from customers, executives confirmed, meaning that monthly bills may have to rise.

Some consumer experts expressed skepticism that PG&E would be able to keep the costs as low as $1.5 million to $2 million per mile, which is the cost associated with an overall expense of $15 billion to $20 billion.

The utility said it will explore new technologies — such as different kinds of equipment — in the hopes of making undergrounding lines both cheaper and faster.

“In the previous costs that PG&E has submitted, their estimates are more like $4 million a mile,” said Mark Toney, executive director with The Utility Reform Network, or TURN. “We estimate that the 10,000 miles will be more like a $40 billion cost.”

Toney warned that PG&E might wind up driving the cost of electricity to exorbitant levels.

“We are worried that PG&E is creating a world where only the wealthy can afford electricity,” Toney said. “PG&E needs to come up with a plan to reduce the most wildfire risks possible at the least possible cost to ratepayers.”


In an emailed statement, CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper did not directly respond to questions about how the regulatory agency plans to enforce PG&E’s plans, saying that it “continues to prioritize public safety and has established processes for considering PG&E’s proposal, once filed.”

“The CPUC would work with stakeholders, including PG&E, in a public process to ensure that the utility is making safety investments that are in the best interest of their customers and all Californians,” Prosper wrote.

The utility’s CEO likewise sidestepped a question as to whether it should have undergrounded more lines earlier. A PG&E spokesperson did not respond to further request for comment.

“We have our eyes on the horizon,” Poppe said. “We are going to look forward and work together to make the system safer.”

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