Pacific Gas & Electric, aiming to show its determination to overcome a history of safety issues, announced Wednesday that it plans to lay 10,000 miles of its power lines underground to prevent the kind of wildfires that could take the utility to bankruptcy court. led.
The project, which would comprise about 10 percent of current overhead lines, could cost tens of billions of dollars to implement. The announcement sparked questions from longtime critics of the utility about how much of the cost would be borne by taxpayers rather than shareholders.
The company, California’s largest electric utility, said work would focus first on the areas most vulnerable to wildfires and expand across its service area, which includes 5.5 million electrical customers in Northern and Central California. .
PG&E’s announcement came days after a preliminary report to state regulators said its equipment could have started the Dixie Fire, one of the largest fires in the state, which has burned at least 85,000 acres. The fire is spreading in Butte County, where utility equipment sparked a fire that devastated the town of Paradise, killing 85 people in 2018.
While utilities across the country have increasingly moved their power lines underground, none have proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s plan. Currently, the utility has 27,000 miles of power lines underground, but these are generally not located in high-risk areas for wildfires.
“You should know that we are working day and night to solve this incredible problem,” said Patricia K. Poppe, chief executive of PG&E Corporation, the utility’s parent company.
This year, the company is laying 70 miles of lines underground, so increasing the work to 1,000 miles a year would be a big step. “That’s the moonshot,” Mrs. Poppe said during a conversation with reporters. “It should be a shocking number because it’s a big target.”
In comparison, President Biden’s infrastructure proposal calls for $73 billion to upgrade the country’s electrical grid. While the spending is aimed at countering the effects of climate change, the prospect of more transmission lines has led to calls for greater reliance on rooftop solar panels and battery storage.
Ms. Poppe, who previously held positions at General Motors and two energy suppliers, became PG&E’s chief executive on Jan. 1 as part of the overhaul after the company emerged from bankruptcy. She said the company planned to make the announcement about underground power lines in a few months, but had decided to do so now because of growing public concerns about fire safety.
Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the California Public Utilities Commission and has often been an opponent of PG&E, said reducing wildfire risk was a priority, but the utility needs to develop a plan. to fund the massive project. without overburdening taxpayers. Based on proposals for underground power lines that PG&E has previously submitted to state regulators, the project could cost about $4 million per mile, or $40 billion in total, Mr. Toney said.
“We would live in a world where only the rich can afford electricity,” he said. “PG&E needs a plan to reduce the greatest possible risk at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo also questioned the ability to fund such an ambitious venture without burdening consumers. “Assuming all of PG&E’s taxpayers win the lottery at the same time, PG&E is right, we can do this,” said Mr Liccardo, who unsuccessfully tried during PG&E’s bankruptcy to turn the utility into a cooperative rather than a publicly traded one. company .
The Public Utilities Commission said it would consider PG&E’s project when the utility formally submits it for review, a process that would include public hearings.
Ms Poppe said the utility hoped to cut costs per mile enough to bring total costs to $15 billion to $20 billion. “We can’t put a price on risk reduction and safety,” she said. But she didn’t go straight into funding.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, an industrial trade group, about 18 percent of the country’s electricity distribution lines are buried, including those for nearly all new residential and commercial developments.
PG&E has been a focus of the impact of climate change since a series of record-breaking wildfires began burning through Northern California in 2017, several of which were caused by the utility’s equipment.
The utility has taken several steps to prevent fires, including installing equipment to monitor weather conditions and remotely shut down pipes. It has sent crews to cut down tree branches and remove other vegetation that could come into contact with power lines, a concern that has grown along with California’s widespread drought.
But the effectiveness of those efforts is increasingly being questioned, especially after the company reported that its equipment could have caused the Dixie Fire. The wildfire season has months to go before it reaches its peak.
State regulators and the courts have fined the utility billions of dollars for failing to maintain its equipment and causing fires. The company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after collecting $30 billion in forest fire liability, pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Paradise fire.
It was the utility’s second conviction. In 2016, PG&E was found guilty of federal charges related to a gas pipeline explosion six years earlier in the San Francisco suburb of San Francisco, which killed eight people. That episode led the Public Utilities Commission to conclude that the company was more about profit than safety.
In recent years, PG&E has also angered millions of customers by turning off their power to prevent the equipment from causing a fire during severe weather. Some were without power for a week.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed to research.