PG&E Buries Power Lines to Tackle Wildfire Risks

Introduction

We’re digging trenches, we’re laying conduit, we’re backfilling, we’re paving. And after that will come electric construction.

Here in Arnold, California, Pacific Gas and Electric is working to bury power lines underground.

This is an expensive but surefire way to practically eliminate the risk of utility-caused wildfires, which have devastated towns throughout California.

And a Hawaii utility could also be the cause of Maui’s recent deadly blazes. We’re coming off of a historic drought, and those conditions are materially different than the conditions that we saw just ten short years ago.

And so now is absolutely the right time to be taking bold, decisive action with regard to the grid safety and grid’s resiliency and scaling this underground program to eliminate wildfire risk.

The infamous Camp Fire of 2018 sparked when high winds knocked over a poorly maintained PG&E transmission line.

The resulting blaze destroyed the town of Paradise, California, killing 85 people. PG&E was found liable, and the massive cost drove the nation’s largest utility into bankruptcy, from which it emerged in 2020.

But just a year later and in the same county, PG&E equipment started another catastrophic fire, prompting the utility to announce plans to move 10,000 miles of distribution lines underground.

It’s an ambitious goal that Martin says would reduce ignition risk by 98%. But undergrounding just one mile costs anywhere from $1.

8 to $6 million. The total plan would likely be in the tens of billions, and that bill would be footed by PG&E’s customers, who already face some of the highest rates in the nation.

It’s very expensive to live in this state, and people are already spending a lot of their money on keeping the lights on, keeping their heat on on a cold night, you know, keeping their medical devices running.

Undergrounding advantages

But though it’s expensive, burying power lines isn’t new. It’s common practice in city centers, where overhead lines would be obstructive, and more common in Europe, where cities tend to be denser.

41% of medium- and low-voltage power lines in Europe are buried, and in Germany and the Netherlands, nearly all of them are.

Only about 18% of distribution lines in the U.S. are underground, though for both safety and aesthetic reasons, almost all the new lines that are built are now buried.

So while our other underground lines were primarily in more urban areas of our service territory, this program is exclusively focused on the highest risk areas in our service territory, getting the lines out of the air and eliminating ignition risk.

In general, overhead power lines are not insulated, as that also comes at a cost. When you look at our overhead wire, it’s bare wire.

And that’s why we’ve got such concerns about that, is that if the tree falls into that and that bare wire, that is where the risk comes from.

Basically, whenever the electricity in an energized line has a direct path to the ground, be that through a tree that’s fallen on a line or a line that’s fallen on vegetation, that’s when fires start.

So shutting them down is a very disruptive option. It is being used quite widely in California, but it’s really a very disruptive option.

PG&E has been implementing public safety power shutoffs in California since 2019, impacting millions of people.

But as disruptive as this option is, it does work. Hawaiian Electric, the utility that could be found liable for the Maui wildfires that killed at least 98 people, was criticized for not shutting off power in advance of high wind warnings.

Looked at this way, undergrounding is undoubtedly cheaper than dealing with the massive costs of deadly wildfires and undoubtedly less disruptive than shutting off power completely.

Martin says that you also eliminate vegetation management costs and many maintenance costs as well, since underground wires aren’t exposed to the elements.

So everything underground is actually got a sheathing on it. There’s no bare wire, and it’s actually protected and made to be there for a long time.

We don’t want to put it in twice. We want to put it in once. Undergrounding doesn’t mean getting rid of all the poles and wires that we’re so familiar with, though.

What’s going to move underground are our primary lines, and they’re the highest risk lines that you see.

They’ll go underground along with the transformers. The transformers will come off the pole, and in the case of the project today will be pad-mounted.

And what will remain is communication lines, if there are any, and the poles that those communication lines are on, as well as secondary lines and service lines to our customer’s homes.

Costs and challenges

PG&E is not alone in its efforts. San Diego Gas & Electric has a plan to underground about 1,450 miles of line through 2031, while Florida Power & Light is undergrounding select lines for hurricane protection.

Austin Energy is also exploring undergrounding in the wake of a winter ice storm that caused weeks-long outages, and the federal government has pledged to provide $95 million to Maui to harden its electric grid, work that could include undergrounding lines.

But PG&E’s proposed plan is far more ambitious and expensive than any other in the nation.

Under this plan, which the California Public Utilities Commission will vote on in November, PG&E will start by undergrounding 2,100 miles of line through 2026 at a total cost of about $5.9 billion.

We anticipate requesting full approval for all 10,000 miles in an upcoming filing with our regulators in 2024.

26 in their bill every month through 2026. The utility says that undergrounding efforts will account for just $3.

40 of this, but the CPUC has since released two cheaper, alternate proposals for consideration, which greatly cut back on undergrounding.

One calls for moving just 200 miles underground and insulating 1,800 miles with covered conductors, while the other involves undergrounding 973 miles and insulating 1,027 miles.

Both proposals would save customers money, but would ultimately put PG&E’s 10,000 mile goal in jeopardy, and possibly customer safety too, since PG&E says that insulating lines is only about 65% effective at reducing wildfire risk.

The Utility Reform Network supports the plan to underground 200 miles, and estimates the cost of insulation to be about $800,000 per mile, as compared with the $3.

3 million per mile that PG&E spent on undergrounding in 2022. By relying more heavily on insulated lines, we can do the work faster and we can deliver that wildfire safety more quickly to those different communities.

Morsony notes that the nation’s second largest utility, Southern California Edison, has embraced insulation as a wildfire mitigation strategy, aiming to install covered conductors on over 7,200 miles of overhead lines by the end of 2025.

The larger the investment, the larger the profit for PG&E and its shareholders. This model is actually how the utility makes money, not by selling electricity or gas

. Undergrounding costs a lot of money, it’s a large investment. So that would increase the revenue that the utilities collect.

Need to act

However utilities choose to proceed, it’s abundantly clear that there’s a need to act quickly to address the risk of wildfire, especially as the American West tries to recover from a decades-long drought.

While the CPUC’s impending decision will impact how extensive a role undergrounding will play in PG&E’s overall risk mitigation strategy, the utility did already move 73 miles underground in 2021, 180 miles underground in 2022, and 350 miles so far this year.

There are about 20 counties that we anticipate will have meaningful amounts of undergrounding over the course of the coming years.

And what we’re seeing is that utilities across the country are recognizing the need for an ever more resilient electric grid.

So in the Southeast, for example, hurricane risk is very real. In the Northeast, storm risk, the same in the Midwest.

Fires are prevalent not just in California, but all the way up the West Coast and into the Rocky Mountains.

As extreme weather like this becomes more common, and the nation moves towards clean energy generation, utilities everywhere will be making major investments to adapt.

Undergrounding power lines is just one of many strategies, but it exemplifies that tough balance that utilities and regulators will need to strike as they pursue safety, reliability and affordability.

It’s really a societal question as well. How do we maintain access to power while also keeping it affordable, I think is a very important question.

Introduction We’re digging trenches, we’re laying conduit, we’re backfilling, we’re paving. And after that will come electric construction.

Here in Arnold, California, Pacific Gas and Electric is working to bury power lines underground. This is an expensive but surefire way to practically eliminate the risk of utility-caused wildfires, which have devastated towns throughout California.

And a Hawaii utility could also be the cause of Maui’s recent deadly blazes. We’re coming off of a historic drought, and those conditions are materially different than the conditions that we saw just ten short years ago.

And so now is absolutely the right time to be taking bold, decisive action with regard to the grid safety and grid’s resiliency and scaling this underground program to eliminate wildfire risk.

The infamous Camp Fire of 2018 sparked when high winds knocked over a poorly maintained PG&E transmission line.

But just a year later and in the same county, PG&E equipment started another catastrophic fire, prompting the utility to announce plans to move 10,000 miles of distribution lines underground.

It’s an ambitious goal that Martin says would reduce ignition risk by 98%. But undergrounding just one mile costs anywhere from $1.

It’s very expensive to live in this state, and people are already spending a lot of their money on keeping the lights on, keeping their heat on on a cold night, you know, keeping their medical devices running.¬†Undergrounding advantages But though it’s expensive, burying power lines isn’t new.

It’s common practice in city centers, where overhead lines would be obstructive, and more common in Europe, where cities tend to be denser.

And that’s why we’ve got such concerns about that, is that if the tree falls into that and that bare wire, that is where the risk comes from.

PG&E has been implementing public safety power shutoffs in California since 2019, impacting millions of people.

Looked at this way, undergrounding is undoubtedly cheaper than dealing with the massive costs of deadly wildfires and undoubtedly less disruptive than shutting off power completely.

We don’t want to put it in twice. We want to put it in once. Undergrounding doesn’t mean getting rid of all the poles and wires that we’re so familiar with, though.

What’s going to move underground are our primary lines, and they’re the highest risk lines that you see. They’ll go underground along with the transformers.

And what will remain is communication lines, if there are any, and the poles that those communication lines are on, as well as secondary lines and service lines to our customer’s homes.

Under this plan, which the California Public Utilities Commission will vote on in November, PG&E will start by undergrounding 2,100 miles of line through 2026 at a total cost of about $5.

9 billion. We anticipate requesting full approval for all 10,000 miles in an upcoming filing with our regulators in 2024.

26 in their bill every month through 2026. The utility says that undergrounding efforts will account for just $3.

40 of this, but the CPUC has since released two cheaper, alternate proposals for consideration, which greatly cut back on undergrounding.

One calls for moving just 200 miles underground and insulating 1,800 miles with covered conductors, while the other involves undergrounding 973 miles and insulating 1,027 miles.

Both proposals would save customers money, but would ultimately put PG&E’s 10,000 mile goal in jeopardy, and possibly customer safety too, since PG&E says that insulating lines is only about 65% effective at reducing wildfire risk.

The Utility Reform Network supports the plan to underground 200 miles, and estimates the cost of insulation to be about $800,000 per mile, as compared with the $3.

Morsony notes that the nation’s second largest utility, Southern California Edison, has embraced insulation as a wildfire mitigation strategy, aiming to install covered conductors on over 7,200 miles of overhead lines by the end of 2025.

The larger the investment, the larger the profit for PG&E and its shareholders. This model is actually how the utility makes money, not by selling electricity or gas.

So that might give them an incentive to go for this type of investment rather than other solutions.

Need to act However utilities choose to proceed, it’s abundantly clear that there’s a need to act quickly to address the risk of wildfire, especially as the American West tries to recover from a decades-long drought.

While the CPUC’s impending decision will impact how extensive a role undergrounding will play in PG&E’s overall risk mitigation strategy, the utility did already move 73 miles underground in 2021, 180 miles underground in 2022, and 350 miles so far this year.

There are about 20 counties that we anticipate will have meaningful amounts of undergrounding over the course of the coming years.

And what we’re seeing is that utilities across the country are recognizing the need for an ever more resilient electric grid.

So in the Southeast, for example, hurricane risk is very real. In the Northeast, storm risk, the same in the Midwest.

Fires are prevalent not just in California, but all the way up the West Coast and into the Rocky Mountains.

As extreme weather like this becomes more common, and the nation moves towards clean energy generation, utilities everywhere will be making major investments to adapt.

Undergrounding power lines is just one of many strategies, but it exemplifies that tough balance that utilities and regulators will need to strike as they pursue safety, reliability and affordability.

It’s really a societal question as well. How do we maintain access to power while also keeping it affordable, I think is a very important question.

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