PG&E to cash in on underground power line project

Pacific Gas and Electric is working to put 10,000 miles of power lines underground in high fire risk areas but the company will make money on the project.

“I was elected two days before the fire,” said Paradise Mayor Steve Crowder. “We lost our home and business in the fire. I spent that day up here in Paradise, helping evacuate.”

Crowder rebuilt his Paradise home.

Then, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Camp Fire, and ridge re-builders made clear that they wanted the power lines underground.

PG&E plans to underground 200 miles of power lines in Paradise and lower Magalia.

Right now, it’s costing about $3.75 million for every single mile.

“To me it represents progress and I am happy to see it. I’ll be extremely happy when it’s done,” said Crowder. “I’m not happy they burned the town down, but they are doing a job here and we do appreciate that.”

The utility recently announced a $25 billion plan to bury 10,000 miles of lines in high wildfire risk areas.

PG&E says it can do the job for less per mile than the Paradise work, about $2.5 million per mile.

“The reason that we’re confident that we can do that is because of the performance we’ve seen at some of our other work here in the North State, specifically in Berry Creek,” said Joe Wilson, Vice president of the North Valley and Sierra Region for PG&E. “We’ve been able to bring projects in for under $2 million a mile. Not only will it help us improve wildfire safety for our communities, it’s going to improve reliability because lots of times we have a storm that will take lines out, but it’s going to dramatically reduce the annual maintenance of vegetation management that we have to do.”

But The Utility Reform Network (TURN) doesn’t buy it.

But some are skeptical.

“The underground proposal is part of the PG&E general rate case for 2023 – 2026, a four-year period. If you look at everything PG&E is requesting, at the end of 2026 the average cost per customer will have risen close to $700 per year. So we’re talking about increases of $50 or $60 a month,” Toney said.

Action News Now checked PG&E’s request to the CPUC, which shows the monthly PG&E bill for a typical household is estimated to increase by almost 15% in 2023 from the same time in 2022.

So, a $100 average bill would become $115.

Mayor Crowder is keeping a positive attitude.

“If it hadn’t been for the fire, if they had come to me as a ratepayer and said ‘it’s going to cost you $10 more a month to have all your utilities underground’, I would have jumped on it,” Crowder said.

The work on the ridge should be done in 2025.

As for the rate increase, the California Public Utilities Commission has yet to approve the plan.

“This is the first major capital project I’ve heard of that’s going to cost less as time goes on instead of more,” said Mark W. Toney, Executive Director of TURN.

PG&E will make money off this project.

“We do need to have investors help to finance this work, and for investors to finance this work they need to be able to see a rate of return on investment,” Wilson said.

Earlier this year PG&E said a 15-cent average monthly rate hike will cover the $25 billion cost.