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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

The PG&E utility pledged Wednesday to place thousands of miles of electric lines underground in a quest to reduce the likelihood of destructive wildfires in Northern and Central California, but provided few details on where exactly — and how quickly — the effort could play out in the years to come.

The promise arrived as the nearly 90,000-acre Dixie fire continued to roar through rugged Butte County and three days after the utility admitted in a state regulatory filing that its equipment touching a tree may have sparked the blaze. The fire remained just 15% contained as of Wednesday afternoon.

Speaking first from the nearby town of Chico and later in a call with reporters, Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe said that the utility had planned to announce the project a few months from now but “couldn’t wait, particularly given the proximity to the Dixie fire and the emotional toll it has on all of us.”

“We want what all of our customers want, a safe and resilient energy system,” she said. “We have taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop.”

Yet when it came to sharing the details of that potential work — including how many years such an undertaking could require and which lines or geographic areas will be prioritized first — the utility’s executives remained vague, beyond saying its scope will ultimately include about 10,000 miles.

Over the coming months, a staff of public safety power shutoff specialists and engineers will map out the highest-risk areas and lines that are “ripe” for undergrounding, Poppe said. She did not explain which geographies or specific lines could be affected.

PG&E now counts about 100,000 miles of lines overhead, and about 27,000 miles underground, Chief Operating Officer Adam Wright said. The utility plans to bury lines that were originally built overhead.

In Butte County, PG&E has placed about 70 to 80 miles of electric lines underground after a line in the Feather River Canyon — the same area as Dixie’s ignition point — sparked the deadly Camp fire three years ago. Executives want to speed that process up, undergrounding about 1,000 miles of electric lines total per year.

At that rate, hitting the 10,000-mile mark could ostensibly take about a decade — a notion Poppe was quick to bat down, although she did not provide an alternative timeline.

“We’re not saying that this is a decadelong program,” she said. “Our objective is to ... do it as fast as possible.”

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.”

(c)2021 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.