Etched in dirt, a narrow furrow is the only clue that the grasslands of Lime Ridge Open Space will soon be restored to their original splendor, cleared of dangerous power lines that could ignite nearby subdivisions.
The undergrounding project, costing $3.75 million a mile, represents the beginning of a 10,000-mile-long effort by Pacific Gas and Electric to bury the state’s distribution lines to cope with the growing risk of winds and wildfires linked to global warming.
“It is a one-time investment to eliminate essentially all ignition risk related to power lines, with the added benefit of reducing reliability issues,” said Jamie Martin, who oversees PG&E’s undergrounding initiative. “It’s permanent risk reduction.”
The utility long resisted calls to bury its power lines as being too costly.
But after its equipment was blamed for sparking a string of devastating wildfires in Northern California the past few years that have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes, the company reversed its position. It filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after facing $30 billion in wildfire-related fines and liability, and pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise.
Other fire-prone areas of the Bay Area are also targeted for undergrounding. Based on an analysis of weather patterns, fire history, tree density, outage data and other factors, priority is going to parts of Santa Rosa, Rossmoor, Pacifica, West Marin’s Lucas Valley and the coastal towns of Pescadero and Davenport.
Only 175 miles will be buried this year — but the project will accelerate. PG&E, the nation’s largest electricity provider, has estimated about 3,600 miles will be completed from 2022 to 2026. When all 10,000 miles are underground, risk will be reduced 70% to 80% in high fire-threat districts, said Martin.
But it’s also a very expensive approach.
“We’re not convinced that undergrounding offers the greatest reduction for the most effective cost,” said Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, The Utility Reform Network. “And that’s really important, because we’re in an affordability crisis, when it comes to monthly electricity bills. We want PG&E to look at other options. We’re skeptical that ratepayers will end up getting their money’s worth.”
But stopgap measures, such as Public Safety Power Shutoffs during windy days, have proven disruptive, abruptly cutting off power to tech-dependent communities. Tree-trimming demands constant effort.
Meanwhile, burying wires and cables is getting cheaper and easier. With innovations in tools and techniques, the utility expects that the cost will drop to $2.5 million a mile by 2026.
“PG&E is being very smart in doing this. It’s a great move,” said Samuel Ariaratnam, construction engineering program chair at Arizona State University.
It’s a trend all over the United States as a changing climate sparks severe weather patterns.
“This is not just a California problem. This is a national problem,” said geotechnical engineer Brian Dorward of Brierley Associates. “California has wildfires. Florida has hurricanes. The Midwest has tornadoes. All natural disasters play havoc on power lines, which are critical infrastructure.”
But none have proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s new plan. San Diego Gas & Electric, a smaller utility, has buried 44% of its distribution lines and 4.4% of its transmission lines. In cities such as Manhattan, lines have been channeled underground for years. cq comment=”; now, there’s a proposed underground line to stretches all the way from that city to Toronto. Germany and the Netherlands are moving to put all their lines underground” ].
Compared to elsewhere, PG&E has been slow to embrace the solution, said Robert McCullough, a veteran energy consultant in Portland, Oregon, and adjunct professor of economics at Portland State University.