PG&E to Underground 10,000 miles of Power Lines

By Published On: July 22, 2021

As the Dixie wildfire in Butte and Plumas counties linked to a tree falling on a remote Pacific Gas & Electric circuit continued to spread, PG&E announced it was taking the unprecedented step of undergrounding 10,000 miles of power lines in high fire danger areas. It estimates the cost at roughly $15-20 billion. It could take around a decade if trenching efficiencies continue.

More than 30% of the large utility’s distribution lines, a total 25,000 miles, are in fire prone zones.

This extraordinary action will be “one of the largest infrastructure projects in the state,” Patti Poppe, PG&E Corporation CEO, said during a June 21 afternoon press conference in Chico, Butte County. Clad in a bright green reflective PG&E worker vest, Poppe pointed to the cloud of smoke behind her, adding, the fire “is a punch in the gut to the people who live and work here.”

Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, estimated the undergrounding tab at $40 billion. He said PG&E must do the work at the lowest cost to ratepayers, requiring “PG&E to sharpen their pencil, not just spend like there’s no tomorrow, because they’re a monopoly where customers have no choice.” The new spending is in addition to $19 billion the utility is seeking in rate increases over the next four years, projected to raise bills by $55 a month.

Undergrounding equipment is “the most effective way to reduce the most significant risks on our system,” Adam Wright, PG&E chief operating officer, said. The burying of power lines and other cables is a known and a long-used practice, the norm in Europe. The scale and scope of PG&E’s new project is unprecedented in the state and country.

Poppe said the undergrounding plan had been in the works, with an announcement expected in a few months, but the Dixie fire forced the utility’s hand.

Despite the fact that the utility previously argued it was too expensive, PG&E officials insisted that expanded partnerships, including with local agencies, continued innovation, and its massive economies of scale will drive down the cost of undergrounding.

Massive wildfires PG&E ignited in 2017 and 2018, including the Paradise fire, resulted in a $58 billion bankruptcy tab. That included $13.5 billion to compensate wildfire victims.

Undergrounding not only significantly reduces the risk of electric equipment sparking fires, but also will slash the number of power safety shutoffs.

“It’s too expensive not to do it. Lives are on the line,” Poppe said. The company is spending $1.4 billion this year to remove 300,000 trees and trim back 1 million more.

Dixie fire grows to 104,000 acres

As of Thursday morning, the Dixie fire had spread to 104,000 acres from 60,000 acres on Tuesday, according to CalFire. It was only 17% contained on July 22.

PG&E has been working to underground 300 miles of lines in regions recently burned in Butte County. That includes in Paradise, which is rebuilding. In 2018, the company also buried 8 miles of power lines in the Larkfield Estates and Mark West Estates communities in Sonoma County.

PG&E highlighted it has improved the efficiency and speed of trenching new underground lines, while reducing environmental impacts.

On Tuesday, PG&E trenched an unprecedented 1,250 feet in one day. Wright said that PG&E may be able to underground 1,000 miles per year in the near future.

The Dixie fire is presumed to have been started by a 70 foot tree falling on a circuit July 13 located on a steep slope in remote terrain near the Feather River Canyon. PG&E reported its equipment may have sparked the fire, noting one of its workers found the tree leaning on the line and a fire burning at the bottom of the pole Sunday morning.

The tree at issue is one of 8 million close to PG&E power lines, Poppe said.

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