Pacific Gas & Electric has launched a major new initiative to move 10,000 miles of California power lines underground in “high fire threat districts” in order to fortify its system and help prevent wildfires.
Today, more than 25,000 miles of overhead distribution power lines are placed in such areas, which together account for more than 30 percent of the total system.
A large swath of the Coastside, from the northern reaches of Half Moon Bay to southern Pacifica, qualifies as a Tier 3 threat, meaning it is an area of extreme concern. Other parts of the coast are considered in the Tier 2 threat zone and are of elevated concern.
PG&E representatives say they will be working with customers and stakeholders in each county to decide upon undergrounding sites based on factors such as local municipal planning and safety considerations.
The ambitious project aims to bury approximately 10 percent of PG&E’s power lines at an estimated cost of $15 billion to $30 billion. The price tag concerns PG&E customers whose electricity rates are already among the highest in the United States.
PG&E has been under scrutiny for failing to maintain its equipment, which has sparked wildfire blazes and sunk the company into debt. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after accruing $30 billion in wildfire liability. It exited bankruptcy in 2020 with even more accumulated debt.
The project's announcement came days after it was discovered that PG&E’s equipment was likely to have caused the Dixie Fire in Butte County. It is California’s largest fire this year and continues to burn nearly 200,000 acres of land.
That was not the first time the company was responsible for starting a fire in Butte. PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter after being held responsible for the Camp Fire of 2018.
The underground utility project is a dramatic attempt for the company, which seeks to begin to right past wrongs.
“This is an undertaking that no one else has pursued on this scale,” Patti Poppe, CEO of PG&E, said at a news conference last week.
The company hopes to be able to put 1,000 miles of lines underground each year in order to complete the project within a decade. This year, PG&E plans on putting 70 miles of lines underground. Increasing the goal to 1,000 miles a year may prove to be an eager leap.
“Our production for undergrounding has gone from 100 or 200 feet per day to a record day of 1,250 feet,” said Adam Wright, PG&E’s chief operating officer in the press conference.
If the crew maintains this record rate without any days off, they would complete fewer than 90 miles in a year.
While undergrounding is in process, PG&E will continue to conduct public safety power shut-offs, remove and trim trees in high risk areas and harden existing overhead lines.
Undergrounding will eventually lessen the need for planned shut-offs, a safety tactic that Coastsiders know well. They occur during extremely dry or windy weather to prevent the fraying power grid from colliding with vegetation, oftentimes leaving PG&E customers without power for extended periods of time.
The landmark project is an attempt to regain the trust of customers and citizens who have been affected by the consequences of faulty equipment in years past.
“We are going to work until we make things safe and make things right,” said Poppe.
The initiative is an example of how private companies are recognizing climate change as an existential threat as extreme weather and warming persist. It is a significant change from the past in which PG&E successfully lobbied to alter legislation and waive fees for its lethal safety violations while Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with most other California legislators and congress members, continued to receive political donations from the company.
“This will be a Marshall Plan-like effort. It’s going to take extraordinary collaboration and partnership with our regulators, with our legislators, with our land owners, with our suppliers, with our contractors, with innovators, and with our co-workers,” said Wright. “This is a great opportunity for PG&E to turn a corner, to make things safe, and make things right.”