By J. D. Morris, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
July 22, 2021
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said Wednesday that it wants to bury 10,000 miles of its power lines in the coming years, hoping that such a far-reaching and expensive effort will finally turn the company's disastrous track record around.
Patti Poppe, CEO of the PG&E Corp. parent company, announced the plan at a news conference in Chico, the largest city in fire-weary Butte County, where residents are anxiously tracking the stubborn Dixie Fire burning in the Sierra Nevada.
PG&E's equipment may be responsible for that blaze, though officials are still investigating the cause. The company said Sunday that one of its employees found two blown fuses and what appeared to be a healthy tree that had fallen on a power line near where the 85,000-acre fire started last week.
If state investigators conclude PG&E was indeed responsible, it would add to a long list of major fires blamed on the company's electric equipment, which has caused catastrophes that over the past several years have killed dozens of people, incinerated thousands of homes, pushed the company into bankruptcy and led it to plead guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Poppe said PG&E leaders had originally planned to announce the undergrounding goal "in a couple months, when we had a little more meat on the bones." But executives decided "we couldn't wait, particularly given the proximity to the Dixie Fire, and the emotional toll it has on all of us."
"We need you to know that we're working night and day to solve this incredible problem," she added. The company will focus first on burying power lines in its most fire-prone areas, Poppe said.
It's a major shift for PG&E, which for years resisted calls to drastically expand the number of wires placed underground as its aging overhead electric equipment repeatedly sparked major wildfires. In the past, company leaders said the costs of burying power lines on a massive scale were too high. Now, executives say they've found ways to make the work more financially feasible -- and they see it as necessary, given California's dire wildfire conditions worsened by climate change.
Poppe told reporters on a later conference call that the company's new underground power line initiative could cost $15 billion to $20 billion.
"In my mind, we cannot put a price on the risk reduction and the safety of our system," she said.
Some of PG&E's staunchest critics remain skeptical of the company, even while acknowledging the benefits of putting more power lines underground.
"I think it's great, but they should have started 10 years ago," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. He said he wanted PG&E to commit to using no ratepayer money for the project.
"This is basically another shuck-and-jive move to divert attention from the fact that they may have sparked the Dixie Fire," Court said.
PG&E has more than 100,000 miles of power lines traversing its vast service area, which stretches from Eureka to Bakersfield. About 27,000 miles of PG&E power lines are now buried underground, but most of them aren't located in high-threat fire zones. The company says it has more than 25,000 miles of overhead distribution lines in the riskiest fire danger areas.
Poppe, who started as CEO in January, told The Chronicle last month that the company has learned it can reduce the price tag drastically when doing underground work on a systemic scale. That revelation came in the Butte County town of Paradise, which was almost entirely destroyed by the 2018 Camp Fire sparked by PG&E electric equipment. The company is now burying all of the town's distribution lines as it rebuilds from the deadliest wildfire in California history, which killed more than 80 people.
PG&E had also planned to bury at least part of the power line that may have caused the Dixie Fire -- but not the sloped section where the fire started, said Adam Wright, the company's chief operating officer. Wright told reporters that the section of the line the company wanted to put underground was where the fire spread, not where it started.
At the Chico news conference, Poppe talked more about how PG&E responded to the damaged equipment near the start of the Dixie Fire.
About nine hours passed from when an employee first spotted, from afar, a blown fuse on a PG&E power line and when he reached the site, according to a company regulatory filing. Poppe said that when the worker finally reached the hilly scene, he saw that a 70-foot pine tree had fallen on electric wires and a small fire was burning on the ground. The tree appeared to be healthy and had been standing 40 feet away from the power equipment, Poppe said.
She said the employee called for help and personally tried to extinguish the fire, making multiple trips from the top of an "extreme" slope, where his truck was parked. Poppe visited the area in question on Tuesday, driving the route her employee took so she could see what he saw.
"All I can say is that our co-worker's actions that day were nothing short of heroic," Poppe said.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who last year secured PG&E's 85-felony-count guilty plea over the 2018 Camp Fire, has launched a criminal investigation into the Dixie Fire. If officials find PG&E equipment responsible for the latest blaze, and the evidence supports prosecution, the company could potentially be charged with a misdemeanor for failing to maintain vegetation properly or a felony for recklessly causing a fire, Ramsey said.
"Its a very active investigation at this point," he said.
PG&E's potential link to the Dixie Fire has also caught the attention of U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees the company's probation arising from the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. Alsup on Wednesday ordered PG&E to file a statement by July 30 explaining "the full extent to which its equipment had any role" in starting the Dixie Fire and a smaller blaze earlier this month.
J.D. Morris is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @thejdmorris