Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is working on a massive project to bury thousands of power lines underground to avoid shutting down electricity in windy and hot weather and prevent igniting fires with its equipment.
Last year, PG&E announced it planned to bury 10,000 miles of power lines over the next ten years, costing $15 billion to $30 billion. The announcement came after the company told regulators that the cause of a major Butte County fire was a 70-foot pine tree toppled on one of its power lines. The fire was in the same area where a 2018 fire sparked by PG&E equipment destroyed thousands of homes and killed more than 80 people.
PG&E’s aging equipment has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires, wiping out more than 23,000 businesses and homes and killing more than 100 people since 2017. In 2019, PG&E, the nation’s largest utility, filed for bankruptcy after facing billions of dollars in lawsuits and wildfire fines.
PG&E says that in addition to preventing wildfires, burying power lines underground could lead to fewer public safety power shutoffs. Shutoffs have become more frequent over the last few years due to high wind events and dry weather. Previously, PG&E buried powerlines in the wake of destructive wildfires as systems are rebuilt, including the massive wildfire that destroyed most of the town of Paradise in 2018.
Recently, the company began work on putting 175 miles of power lines underground in Northern and Central California, according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. PG&E has plans to bury as many as 1,200 miles per year to meet its goal.
“Undergrounding reduces ignition risk by 99%, so we are starting in the areas of the highest fire risk, high fire threat district areas, and also prioritizing areas where we can reduce the number of public safety power shutoffs,” said Contreras. She also said burying power lines will cost $3.75 million per mile.
“As we increase the line miles every year and we scale up, we expect those costs to come down to about $2.5 million a mile by the end of 2026,” added Contreras.’’
Critics: Plan is too expensive and will take too long
Some critics of PG&E’s plan say it will take far too long to complete and is too expensive. The burying of lines calls for ratepayers to pay for the project through higher utility bills.
PG&E is a 117-year-old company and serves a 70,000-square-mile service area in central and Northern California. It generates $20 billion in revenue annually, including big cities, forests, farmland, and the world’s largest technology hub, Silicon Valley. One place where lines are being buried in the area near where the 2017 Tubbs wildfire, which destroyed thousands of homes around and in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County.
Supporters of underground line burying say the plan will also provide a more aesthetically pleasing California landscape. Tom Sullivan, who lost his home in the 2017 Tubbs wildfire and rebuilt it, said he’s willing to pay more for power if it means lowering the chance of another catastrophic wildfire.
“It’s something that has to be done, so we’re just all going to have to pay for it. Either that or we’re going to end up with more fires,” said Sullivan.