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PG&E likely sparks another massive fire, pledges to bury 10,000 miles of power lines

Power lines are cast in silhouette as the Creek Fire creeps up on on the Shaver Springs community off of Tollhouse Road on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Auberry, CA.
Enlarge / Power lines are cast in silhouette as the Creek Fire creeps up on on the Shaver Springs community off of Tollhouse Road on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Auberry, CA.

It took a string of deadly fires, criminal convictions, a messy bankruptcy, and a multibillion-dollar settlement, but Pacific Gas and Electric Company—better known as PG&E—is finally committing to burying vast stretches of power lines in fire-prone California.

The utility said on Wednesday that it will bury 10,000 miles of power lines in places that are at the greatest risk for wildfires. The ten-year project will touch 10 percent of PG&E’s transmission and distributions lines, and it will cost tens of billions of dollars.

PG&E had apparently been planning to announce the project later this year, but Patricia Poppe, the company’s new CEO, moved up the news release after the utility’s equipment emerged as the likely cause of the 104,000-acre Dixie Fire in Butte County. A 70-foot pine tree fell on one of PG&E’s power lines on July 13, the company reported to regulators. Today, the fire is only 17 percent contained.

“It’s too expensive not to do it. Lives are on the line,” Poppe said in a press conference. She also said the company would spend $1.4 billion this year to trim more than a million trees and cut down over 300,000 more.

Spotty record

In 2017 and 2018 alone, faulty PG&E equipment killed more than 100 people in California. The Camp Fire, among others, heaped more than $30 billion in potential liability claims onto PG&E, forcing it into a complex, $59 billion bankruptcy and reorganization. 

With the Dixie Fire, Butte County is once again suffering as a result of a PG&E equipment failure. The county is home to Paradise, the town that was almost completely destroyed in the 2018 Camp Fire, which was also started by PG&E equipment. In that case, PG&E ultimately pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after a grand jury indicted the utility on criminal negligence over its failure to replace a worn C-hook that held a high-voltage line. 

For over a decade, PG&E’s safety record has been spotty at best. In 2008, a gas explosion in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova killed a 74-year-old man. In 2010, one of PG&E’s gas pipelines exploded in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco, killing eight. An investigation by regulators caught the company falsifying safety records for gas pipelines. Between 2014 and 2017, PG&E’s electrical equipment started 1,550 fires.

Many of PG&E’s safety problems seem to trace back to chronic underinvestment in maintenance and operations. In 2012, regulators discovered that PG&E had shorted its operations and maintenance budget by millions of dollars. They also found that overall capital spending between 1997 and 2000 was $93 million less than the company’s authorized budget, and between 2002 and 2012, PG&E revenues from gas and electric transmission were $224 million higher than authorized.

Herculean task

Burying 1,000 miles of power lines every year will be a herculean task for the company. In recent years, PG&E has been burying only about 70 miles annually. In total, the company owns 20,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 80,000 miles of distribution lines. The utility already has around 27,000 miles underground, though most of that is not in areas of high fire risk. Burying power lines can be challenging, particularly in hilly and rocky terrain, which describes large parts of California. In fact, the regions that are most prone to wildfire are in some of the most challenging topography. 

Costs for PG&E’s project range widely. Poppe said that she hopes the company can get per-mile costs down to the point where the entire project will run $15–20 billion. But Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, told The New York Times that based on per-mile costs from previously submitted PG&E proposals to bury power lines, the price could be as high as $40 billion.

Ratepayers will likely be on the hook for a majority of the price tag. The utility recently emerged from bankruptcy, and it promised to fund a $13.5 billion trust for victims of previous wildfires. Yet with half of the trust paid in the form of PG&E stock, which has fallen nearly 25 percent this year, the fund is already facing an approximately $2 billion shortfall. Last year, the utility distributed just $7 million to victims. 

Changing climate

PG&E’s pledge to bury power lines represents just one of the many adaptations the US is facing to prepare its infrastructure for a changing climate. California has been a landscape shaped by fire for thousands of years, but rising temperatures, shrinking snowpack, and unpredictable precipitation patterns have ramped up the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Climate change is running head-first into other challenging trends in California and the American West. Forests are loaded with dead wood and debris, perfect fuels for wildfires, after more than a century of fire suppression. The practice of putting out even the smallest fires has created ladders for blazes to climb up from the understory into tree canopies, raising the risk that a small fire will turn into a large one. People have been moving deeper into rural areas, creating a massive wildland-urban interface that is lacing fire-prone wilderness with homes and power lines. 

Together with an aging grid, those circumstances have created the conditions that have set California and the West ablaze year after year. PG&E’s plan will help reduce the risk of wildfire somewhat, but it won’t be enough without other, more sweeping changes.

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