It took a series of deadly fires, criminal convictions, a messy bankruptcy, and a multi-billion dollar settlement, but Pacific Gas and Electric Company, better known as PG&E, is finally committed to burying vast swathes. of power lines in a fire-prone California.
The utility said on Wednesday it would bury 10,000 miles of power lines in places most at risk of wildfires. The ten-year project will affect 10% of PG & E’s transmission and distribution lines and cost tens of billions of dollars.
PG&E had apparently planned to announce the project later this year, but Patricia Poppe, the company’s new CEO, advanced the press release after utility equipment emerged as the likely cause of the 104,000 acres Dixie Fire in Butte County. A 70-foot pine tree fell on one of PG&E’s power lines on July 13, the company reported to regulators. Today, the fire is only 17 percent contained.
“It’s too expensive not to do it. Lives are at stake, ”Poppe said at a press conference. She also said the company would spend $ 1.4 billion this year to cut more than a million trees and fell more than 300,000 more.
In 2017 and 2018 alone, faulty PG&E equipment killed more than 100 people in California. Campfire, among others, has racked up more than $ 30 billion in potential liability claims on PG&E, forcing it into a complex $ 59 billion bankruptcy and reorganization.
With the Dixie fire, Butte County once again suffered from a failure of PG&E equipment. The county is home to Paradise, the town that was almost completely destroyed in the 2018 camp fire, which was also started by PG&E equipment. In that case, PG&E ultimately pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter after a grand jury charged the public service with criminal negligence for its inability to replace a worn out C-hook that contained a high line. voltage.
For more than a decade, PG & E’s safety record has been uneven at best. In 2008, a gas explosion in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova killed a 74-year-old man. In 2010, one of PG&E’s gas pipelines exploded in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco, killing eight. Investigation by regulators caught the company tamper with security records for gas pipelines. Between 2014 and 2017, PG&E electrical equipment started up 1,550 fires.
Many of PG&E’s safety issues appear to stem from chronic underinvestment in maintenance and operations. In 2012, regulators discovered that PG&E had short-circuited its operating and maintenance budget of millions of dollars. They also found that the overall capital expenditure between 1997 and 2000 was $ 93 million lower than the authorized budget of the company and that between 2002 and 2012, PG&E revenue from the transmission of gas and electricity. were $ 224 million above authorities.
Burying 1,000 miles of power lines every year will be a Herculean task for the company. In recent years, PG&E has only buried about 70 miles per year. In total, the company has 20,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines and 80,000 miles of distribution lines. The utility already has approx 27,000 miles underground, although most are not in high fire risk areas. Burying power lines can be difficult, especially in the rugged and rocky terrain, which describes large parts of California. In fact, the regions most prone to forest fires are found in some of the most difficult topographies.
The costs of the PG&E project vary considerably. Poppe said she hopes the company can reduce costs per mile to the point where the entire project runs between $ 15 billion and $ 20 billion. But Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, said The New York Times that, based on the costs per mile of PG&E previously submitted proposals to bury power lines, the price could reach $ 40 billion.
Taxpayers will likely have to pay most of the price. The utility recently came out of bankruptcy and pledged to fund a $ 13.5 billion trust for victims of previous wildfires. Yet with half the trust paid in the form of PG&E shares, which has fallen nearly 25% this year, the fund is already facing a shortfall of around $ 2 billion. Last year the utility distributed only $ 7 million to victims.
PG&E’s commitment to bury power lines is just one of many adaptations the United States faces in preparing its infrastructure for climate change. California has been a landscape shaped by fire for thousands of years, but rising temperatures, shrinking snow cover and unpredictable rainfall patterns have increased the risk of catastrophic forest fires.
Climate change is hitting other difficult trends head-on in California and the American West. Forests are laden with deadwood and debris, perfect fuels for forest fires, after more than a century of fire suppression. The practice of putting out even the smallest fires has created ladders that allow flames to climb from the undergrowth to the canopy of trees, increasing the risk of a small fire turning into a large one. People have moved deeper into rural areas, creating a massive interface between wilderness and urban areas that mixes wilderness prone to fire with houses and power lines.
Combined with an aging grid, these circumstances created the conditions that have inflamed California and the West year after year. The PG&E plan will help reduce the risk of forest fires somewhat, but it will not be enough without other more radical changes.