PG&E Aims to Curb Wildfire Risk by Burying Many Power Lines
Pacific Gas & Electric, aimed at showing its determination to overcome a history of safety concerns, announced Wednesday that it plans to put 10,000 miles of its power lines underground to prevent the type of wildfires that drove the public service in bankruptcy court.
The project, which would affect around 10 percent of lines currently above ground, could cost tens of billions of dollars to complete. The announcement prompted questions from longtime utility critics about how much of the cost would be borne by taxpayers rather than shareholders.
The company, California’s largest electricity supplier, said the work would target areas most vulnerable to wildfires first and span its entire service territory, which includes 5.5 million customers. electrics in northern and central California.
PG&E’s announcement came days after a preliminary report to state regulators said its equipment may have caused the Dixie Blaze, one of the state’s largest fires, which burned at least 85,000 acres. The blaze is spreading to Butte County, where utility equipment sparked a blaze that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018.
Although utilities across the country have increasingly moved their power lines underground, none have proposed a project to scale the PG&E plan. Currently, the utility has 27,000 miles of underground power lines, but these are generally not found in areas at high risk of forest fires.
“We need you to know that we are working around the clock to solve this incredible problem,” said Patricia K. Poppe, Managing Director of PG&E Corporation, the utility’s parent company.
This year the company is putting 70 miles of lines underground, so increasing the work to 1,000 miles per year would be a leap forward. “It’s the stroke of the moon,” Ms Poppe said on a call with reporters. “It should be a shocking number because it’s a big goal.”
By comparison, President Biden’s infrastructure proposal calls for $ 73 billion to improve the country’s electricity grid. Although the spending is aimed at countering the effects of climate change, the prospect of more transmission lines has led to calls for more reliance on rooftop solar panels and battery storage.
Ms Poppe, who previously held positions at General Motors and two power utilities, became CEO of PG&E on Jan. 1 as part of its overhaul after the company exited bankruptcy. She said the company planned to make the underground power line announcement in a few months, but decided to do so now due to growing public concern over fire safety.
Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the California Public Utilities Commission and has often been an opponent of PG&E, said reducing the risk of wildfires was a priority, but the utility had to come up with a plan that would fund the huge project. without overburdening taxpayers. Based on the underground power line proposals that PG&E has already submitted to state regulators, the project could cost around $ 4 million per mile, or $ 40 billion in total, Toney said.
Extreme weather conditions
“We would live in a world where only the rich could afford electricity,” he said. “PG&E needs a plan to reduce as much risk as possible at the least possible cost to taxpayers. “
San José Mayor Sam Liccardo also questioned the ability to fund such an ambitious business without weighing down consumers. “If we assume that all PG&E taxpayers win the lottery at the same time, PG&E is right, we can do it,” said Liccardo, who sought unsuccessfully during the PG&E bankruptcy to transform the public service. into a cooperative rather than a public company. .
The Public Utilities Commission has said it will review the draft PG&E when the utility officially submits it for review, a process that would include public hearings.
Ms Poppe said the utility hopes to cut spending per mile enough to bring the overall cost to $ 15 billion to $ 20 billion. “We cannot put a price on risk reduction and safety,” she said. But she did not directly address the funding.
About 18% of the nation’s power distribution lines are buried underground, including those of almost all new residential and commercial developments, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group.
PG&E has been at the center of the impact of climate change since a series of record-breaking wildfires began to burn across northern California in 2017, including several caused by utility equipment.
The utility has taken several measures to prevent fires, including installing equipment to monitor weather conditions and to allow lines to be closed remotely. He sent crews to cut tree branches and remove other vegetation that could come in contact with power lines, a concern that has grown with widespread drought conditions in California.
But the effectiveness of those efforts is increasingly being questioned, especially after the company reported that its equipment could have caused the Dixie fire. The wildfire season is months before its peak.
State regulators and courts have fined the utility billions of dollars for failing to maintain equipment and causing fires. The company, which filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after amassing $ 30 billion in forest fire liability, pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of manslaughter related to Paradise fire.
It was the second utility felony conviction. In 2016, PG&E was convicted of federal charges relating to a gas pipeline explosion six years earlier in suburban San Francisco, San Bruno, which killed eight people. This episode led the Public Utilities Commission to conclude that the company was more concerned with profit than safety.
Over the past few years, PG&E has also angered millions of customers by cutting off their electricity to prevent its equipment from starting fires during extreme weather conditions. Some were without electricity for a week.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.
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