Pacific Gas & Electric plans to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines in an effort to save its catastrophic grid from sparks when electrical equipment hits millions of trees and other vegetation.
SAN RAMON, Calif. – Pacific Gas and Electric plans to bury 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of its power lines to protect its catastrophic grid from sparks when drought-stricken electrical equipment hits millions of trees and other vegetation. be in the effort. California.
The challenging project, announced Wednesday, aims to bury about 10% of PG&E’s distribution and transmission lines at an estimated cost of $15 billion to $30 billion, depending on the cost of the process currently in place. The utility believes it will find ways to keep the final bill on the low end of those estimates. Most of the cost will probably be borne by PG&E customers, whose electricity rates are already among the highest in the US.
PG&E stepped up its safety commitment just days after notifying regulators that a 70-foot (23 m) pine tree, which fell on one of its power lines, caused a major fire in Butte County. , in the same rural area 145 miles (233 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco where its equipment caused another fire in 2018 that killed more than 80 people and destroyed thousands of homes.
Since it began in a remote area of Butte County on July 13, the Dixie Fire has churned northeast through the Sierra Nevada. By Wednesday, the fire had spread to a 133-square-mile (344-square-kilometer) area, forcing the Plumas County Sheriff to order an evacuation from the western shore of the popular Lake Almanor on Wednesday.
The reaction to PG&E’s potential liability for the Dixie Fire prompted the company’s recently appointed CEO, Patricia “Patti” Poppe, to unveil plans for the underground lines several months ago that she had planned.
Previous PG&E arrangements have strongly opposed plans to bury long stretches of power lines because of the heavy expense.
But Popeye told reporters Wednesday that after joining PG&E in January he realized early on that underground lines were the best way to protect the 16 million people who rely on it for utility and power.
“It’s too expensive not to do this. Life is on the line,” Poppe told reporters.
PG&E only said it would take years to bury the lines.
However, completing the work within the next decade would require a quantum leap. In some areas where PG&E is already burying power lines, it is completing about 70 miles (123 kilometers) annually.
PG&E expects to be able to bury more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of power lines annually, its chief operating officer Adam Wright said. While Wright compared the project to the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II, Pope invoked President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 pledge that the US would land on the Moon.
PG&E’s path up to this point has been filled with death and destruction.
The utility’s grid was blamed for igniting a series of devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018, after previous leaders allowed their equipment to malfunction in an apparent attempt to boost profits and management bonuses, Which prompted the company to file for bankruptcy in 2019.
The biggest fire in Butte County wiped out an entire city of Paradise and resulted in PG&E pleading guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter last year, just weeks before one of the most complicated cases in American history came to light. was.
As part of its bankruptcy, PG&E set up a $13.5 billion trust to pay victims of its previous wildfires, but that fund is facing a shortfall of nearly $2 billion because of half its money. Coming from the stock of the company which is backward in the market.
Since exiting bankruptcy, PG&E has also been reprimanded by California electricity regulators and a federal judge overseeing criminal probation for breaking promises to reduce the dangers posed by trees near its power lines. The utility has also been charged with another round of fire-related offenses which it denies.
Pope insists things are getting better this year under a plan that calls for PG&E to spend $1.4 billion to remove more than 300,000 trees and trim another 1.1 million. But he recognized that the utility is “not making enough progress” because it is only a fraction of that 8 million trees within striking distance of power lines.
But she also defended PG&E’s handling of the tree that may have caused the Dixie Fire and its reaction. The tree seemed healthy and was about 40 feet (12 meters) away from power lines, she said, making it a low-risk hazard.
When a PG&E troubleshooter was dispatched to inspect a potential problem, he noticed that the tree had fallen and could have started a fire in a treacherous area that he tried to extinguish before firefighters arrived.
“Their efforts can be called nothing less than heroic,” the Pope said.