A bold plan to bury 10,000 miles of power lines was announced on Wednesday by Pacific Gas & Electric, which aims to prevent the kind of wildfires that forced the utility into bankruptcy court in 2019.
Carrying out the project, which would involve approximately 10% of the lines currently visible above ground, could cost tens of billions of dollars, according to estimates.
A spokesperson for the company, which is California’s largest electricity provider, said the work would begin in the most vulnerable areas of the state and then spread throughout its service territory, which includes 5.5 million electric customers throughout Northern and Central California.
A preliminary report to state regulators over the last week suggested that PG&E’s equipment may have been responsible for the Dixie Fire, one of the state’s largest blazes, which has burned at least 85,000 acres and is one of the state’s most destructive. However, the fire is spreading in Butte County, where the utility’s equipment was responsible for a fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and claimed the lives of 85 people last year.
The utility industry has been moving power lines underground at an increasing rate across the country, but no other utility company has proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s proposal.
“We want you to know that we are working around the clock to find a solution to this incredible problem,” Patricia K. Poppe, chief executive of PG&E Corporation, the utility’s parent company, said in an interview.
The company is currently burying 70 miles of lines underground this year, so expanding the work to 1,000 miles would be a significant increase. On a conference call with reporters, Ms. Poppe stated, “That’s the moonshot.” The number should be shocking because it is such a lofty ambition.
Although the company had planned to make the announcement in a few months, she explained that it had decided to do so now because of growing public concern over fire safety.
Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the California Public Utilities Commission, stated that reducing wildfire risk was a priority, but the utility must develop a plan to fund the massive project without placing an undue burden on ratepayers in order to accomplish this. Based on an estimated cost of $4 million per mile for underground power line proposals that PG&E has submitted to state regulators, Mr. Toney estimates that the project could cost $40 billion in the long run.
“We’d be living in a world where only the wealthy could afford electricity,” Mr. Toney predicted in an interview. “PG&E must develop a strategy to mitigate the greatest amount of risk at the lowest possible cost to ratepayers.”
Ms. Poppe stated that the utility hoped to reduce the cost per mile travelled to the point where the overall cost would be between $15 billion and $20 billion. It is impossible to put a monetary value on risk reduction and safety, she stated.
The company stated that it could instal approximately a quarter-mile of underground power lines per day, but that it hoped to increase that number to 1,000 miles or more per year in order to prevent fires from erupting.
Since a series of record-setting wildfires began raging across Northern California in 2017, with several of them being caused by the utility’s equipment, PG&E has become a focal point for the discussion of climate change.
It has taken a number of steps to prevent fires, including installing equipment to monitor weather conditions and allowing lines to be turned off remotely. However, the effectiveness of those efforts has come into question in recent years, particularly after the company reported that its equipment may have been responsible for the Dixie Fire. There are still several months left until the wildfire season reaches its zenith.
A total of billions of dollars have been fined by state regulators and the courts against the utility company for failing to maintain its equipment and causing fires. Following its bankruptcy filing last year, the company admitted to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Paradise fire. The company had amassed $30 billion in wildfire liabilities prior to filing for bankruptcy.
It was the utility’s second felony conviction in as many years. In 2016, PG&E was found guilty of federal charges stemming from a gas pipeline explosion that occurred in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno six years earlier and resulted in the deaths of eight people.