By Sonseeahary Tonsall, Eric Rucker, Ian McDonald, KXTL FOX TV-40, Sacramento, CA
July 21, 2021
CHICO, Calif. (KTXL) — Pacific Gas and Electric announced on Wednesday that it plans to bury 10,000 miles of lines in parts of the state with higher fire danger.
The utility made the announcement in Butte County, where it says its equipment could be to blame for igniting the 85,000-acre Dixie Fire.
“We want what all of our customers want: a safe and resilient energy system. We have taken a stand that catastrophic wildfires shall stop. We will partner with the best and the brightest to bring that stand to life,” PG&E CEO Patti Poppe said in a news release. “We will demand excellence of ourselves. We will gladly partner with policymakers and state and local leaders to map a path we can all believe in.”
After the 2017 wine country fires and 2018’s Camp Fire, which killed dozens of people and largely destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise, PG&E says it began looking into putting overhead power lines underground.
In 2019, PG&E said it would rebuild its lines in Paradise underground, and again in the burn scar from the 2020 North Complex fires.
According to a PG&E spokesperson, the cost of following through on their plan could exceed $15 billion.
“PG&E estimates the total cost to underground 10,000 miles of power lines to be approximately $15-20 billion or more, but given the early stages of our effort, we’re not yet at the point of scoping all of the costs …,” PG&E said in a statement to FOX40.
“It is going to cost between 20 and 40 billion dollars to underground 10,000 miles,” said Dr. Mark Toney, with the Utility Reform Network.
Others have concerns besides the cost.
“Why haven’t you announced it earlier, number one,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.
Court also feels the project should not hit the pockets of customers.
“If PG&E is really serious about committing to putting these wires underground, they have to actually come up with the corporate money to do it. And there is corporate money, there is shareholder money that could be put towards this use and should be put towards this use,” Court said.
In the press conference, PG&E did not say how this will affect customers’ rates. They also did not give a timeline for how long they expect this project to take.
It’s been a year since the utility emerged from one of the most complex bankruptcy cases in U.S. history, an act driven by a succession of harrowing wildfires ignited by its long-neglected electrical grid. The bankruptcy, PG&E’s second in less than 20 years, was billed as an opportunity to finally hit the reset button for a utility that provides power to 16 million people — more than the population of all but a handful of states.
Already a twice-convicted felon, PG&E has been charged with another round of fire-related crimes that it denies committing. The utility also has been rebuked by California regulators and a federal judge overseeing its criminal probation for breaking promises to reduce the dangers posed by trees near its power lines.