The California utility responsible for the deadliest fire in the state’s history is planning to bury 10,000 miles of power lines as it ramps up for what experts are predicting to be a disastrous wildfire season.
Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), California’s monopoly utility, announced on Wednesday its multi-year plan to mitigate wildfire risk by undergrounding a fraction of its wires in high-risk regions of the state at a massive cost that will be pushed to consumers.
The goal is to prevent the company’s aging electrical equipment from breaking or faulting and sparking fires that could easily ignite trees and vegetation across the drought-gripped west coast state. The entire project will cost between $15 and $30 billion, which will be paid for by customers, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.
“We want what all of our customers want: a safe and resilient energy system. We have taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop,” PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in a press release. “We will partner with the best and the brightest to bring that stand to life. We will demand excellence of ourselves.”
The announcement comes less than a week after the utility revealed that a blown fuse on one of its wires may have sparked the Dixie Fire in Butte County, around 100 miles north of Sacramento, which burned through 103,000 acres of land.
PG&E has a track record of deferring maintenance and repairs on its decades-old infrastructure, an approach that’s wreaked havoc on California communities and ecosystems for years. A 2020 KQED investigation found that the company spent at least a decade skirting safety reforms like risk management and incident reporting, describing these measures as an “unnecessary cost.” The utility was responsible for at least 1,500 fires between 2014 and 2017—more than a fire a day on average in that period, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019.
Last year, as wildfires ravaged California and smog plumed across the country, turning skies well beyond the west coast a hazy orange, PG&E was pleading guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. It admitted that one of its faulty transmission lines in Paradise, California started the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and caused an estimated $17-billion in damage, accepting a $3.5 million fine as part of its criminal plea, which critics considered a slap on the wrist.
PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019 to avert billions in wildfire liability costs. The company is now also facing 33 counts of criminal charges for igniting a 2019 wildfire in Sonoma County that burned through 78,000 acres and seriously injured six firefighters.
The undergrounding announcement was met with mixed reactions on Twitter: KQED journalist Lily Jamali pointed out that the huge estimated cost of the project was equivalent to PG&E’s overall debt, while others expressed concern over the environmental expense associated with dredging up miles of land.
Though the same distance as a trip nearly halfway around the world (or so PG&E boasted in a press release) the 10,000 miles represent a mere 10 percent of its distribution and transmission lines, the AP reported. The company told Motherboard in an emailed statement that it plans to install 1,000 miles of power line per year—a goal that it admits is ambitious given requirements to design the lines around existing water, natural gas and underground drainage systems.
“There will be an initial ramp-up period, but within a couple of years, we will be doing 10 times the mileage we are doing today and even more,” Paul Doherty, senior communications strategist at PG&E said. “We are going to challenge ourselves to improve every day, every week, every year.”
The move could be among the first of many as utilities across the country prepare for growing wildfire risk amid climate change.
“We’re certainly talking about it a lot more than we were, say, 10 years ago,” Ted Kury, director of energy studies for the Public Utility Research Center (PURC) at the University of Florida, said of undergrounding power lines to skirt the growing risk of extreme weather.
Below-ground power lines are widely considered safer and more future-proof than their above-ground equivalents. At the usual 24 inches below ground, they’re safe from most inclement weather, which can snap lines and topple poles; falling trees; and nearby brush, which is at risk of catching fire in the event that a damaged line breaks and heat from an electrical current escapes. But moving wires underground comes with its own hazards, like groundwater intrusion, Kury notes.
“There is no blanket solution that works for everybody,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do to completely protect the grid from interacting with the environment. All you can do is choose the types of interactions that are less risky.”
Though the idea of undergrounding power lines to avert risk is not new, the main reason most companies have not embraced the change is cost: underground lines must be wrapped in plastic and surrounded by a buffer to avoid overheating, a step that above-ground lines, which dissipate heat into the air naturally, do not require. The entire process costs around $1 million per mile, with variance depending on urban density and geography. They also cost more and require disruptive digging to repair.
PG&E’s multi-year grounding project will be paid for primarily by its 16 million-plus customers in California, meaning the utility will likely enter into a rate case or issue rate adjustments to fund the effort soon. The announcement comes less than a month after the company announced it would be hiking rates by 18 percent starting in 2023 for broader wildfire risk mitigation efforts, including undergrounding and tree thinning near above-ground power lines. Californians already pay the seventh highest utility bills in the country.
“When it comes to infrastructure, the people pay in the end,” Kury said. “There’s no getting around it. One way or the other, people are going to pay. All the policymakers decide is how and when.”