September 27, 2021

California wildfires: PG&E will spend up to $30 billion burying power lines in fire threat zones

SAN RAMON, Calif. — Pacific Fuel & Electrical plans to bury 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of its power lines in an effort to stop its fraying grid from sparking wildfires when electrical gear collides with hundreds of thousands of bushes and different vegetation throughout drought-stricken California.

The daunting challenge introduced Wednesday goals to bury about 10% of PG&E’s distribution and transmission lines at a projected price of $15 billion to as a lot as $30 billion, based mostly on how a lot the method presently prices. The utility believes it will discover methods to hold the ultimate invoice on the decrease finish of these estimates. Many of the prices will seemingly be shouldered by PG&E clients, whose electrical energy charges are already among the many highest in the U.S.

PG&E stepped up its security dedication simply days after informing regulators a 70-foot (23-meter) pine tree that toppled on one in all its power lines ignited a significant fire in Butte County, the identical rural space about 145 miles (233 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco the place one other fire sparked by its gear in 2018 killed greater than 80 individuals and destroyed 1000’s of houses.

Because it began July 13 in a distant space of Butte County, the Dixie Fire has churned northeast by the Sierra Nevada. By Wednesday, the fire spanned a 133-square-mile (344-square-kilometer) space, forcing the Plumas County sheriff on Wednesday to order evacuations alongside the west shore of widespread Lake Almanor.

The backlash to PG&E’s potential legal responsibility for the Dixie Fire prompted the corporate’s not too long ago employed CEO, Patricia “Patti” Poppe, to unveil the plan for underground lines a number of months sooner than she mentioned she deliberate.

Earlier PG&E regimes have staunchly resisted plans to bury lengthy stretches of power lines due to the large expense concerned.

However Poppe instructed reporters on Wednesday that she shortly realized after she joined PG&E in January that transferring lines underground is the easiest way to shield each the utility and the 16 million individuals who depend on it for power.

“It’s too expensive not to do it. Lives are on the line,” Poppe instructed reporters.

PG&E mentioned solely that burying the lines will take a number of years.

Nonetheless, getting the job accomplished inside the subsequent decade will require a quantum leap. Within the few areas the place PG&E has already been burying power lines, it has been finishing about 70 miles (123 kilometers) yearly.

PG&E expects to ultimately find a way to bury greater than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of power lines yearly, mentioned its chief working officer, Adam Wright. Whereas Wright likened the challenge to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World Conflict II, Poppe invoked President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 pledge for the U.S. to land on the moon.

PG&E’s path to this level has been strewn with loss of life and destruction.

After earlier leaders allowed its gear to fall into disrepair in a obvious try to enhance income and administration bonuses, the utility’s grid was blamed for igniting a collection of devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 that prompted the corporate to file for chapter in 2019.

The largest fire, in Butte County, worn out the whole city of Paradise and resulted in PG&E pleading responsible to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter final yr simply weeks earlier than it emerged from one of the crucial advanced circumstances in U.S. historical past.

As a part of its chapter, PG&E set up a $13.5 billion belief to pay victims of its previous wildfires, however that fund is dealing with a roughly $2 billion shortfall as a result of half its cash is meant to come from firm inventory that has been a market laggard.

Since getting out of chapter, PG&E additionally has been rebuked by California power regulators and a federal decide overseeing its felony probation for breaking guarantees to cut back the hazards posed by bushes close to its power lines. The utility has additionally been charged with one other spherical of fire-related crimes that it denies committing.

Poppe insisted issues are getting higher this yr below a plan that requires PG&E to spend $1.4 billion eradicating greater than 300,000 bushes and trimming one other 1.1 million. However she conceded the utility is “not making enough progress” because it’s solely a fraction of that 8 million bushes inside putting distance of its power lines.

However she additionally defended PG&E’s dealing with of the tree which will have prompted the Dixie Fire and its response. The tree seemed wholesome and was about 40 ft (12 meters) from power lines, she mentioned, making it a low-risk hazard.

When a PG&E troubleshooter was despatched out to examine a possible drawback, he seen the tree had fallen and should have began a fire in a treacherous space that he tried to put out earlier than firefighters arrived.

“His efforts can be called nothing less than heroic,” Poppe mentioned.

Check out the newest tales and movies about wildfires right here in the Bay Space and throughout California.

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