Source: Bloomberg | By Mark Chediak
PG&E Corp. estimates it will cost about $10.5 billion to bury nearly 3,600 miles (5,794 kilometers) of power lines over the next five years as part of an ambitious project to prevent equipment from sparking catastrophic wildfires.
The California utility giant said Friday it aims to speed up its pace of putting lines underground, with a target of at least 175 miles this year at a cost of $3.75 million per mile, or about $656 million, according to a regulatory filing made Friday with the state. PG&E plans to ratchet up that annual pace to a goal of burying 1,200 miles in 2026 at a reduced cost per mile, the filing said.
PG&E’s disclosure offers for the first time details on how much the utility estimates it will need to spend on what it has said will be the largest anti-fire effort of its kind in the nation. The company said some of the undergrounding expenses will be offset by reducing the need to send crews out to trim trees around exposed overhead lines.
PG&E Chief Executive Officer Patti Poppe unveiled a plan last year to eventually bury 10,000 miles in high fire risk areas, shortly after the start of the massive Dixie Fire that was sparked by a PG&E line that had been slated to be buried.
“PG&E has taken a stand that catastrophic wildfire shall stop,” Poppe said in a statement Friday.
PG&E emerged just a month ago from a five-year criminal probation where a federal judge in San Francisco frequently lambasted the company’s performance on fire safety. Wildfires started by utility’s equipment have destroyed more than 1 million acres and killed scores of people, sending the company into bankruptcy in 2019.
‘Insult to Injury’
Poppe, who took over as CEO last year, has pledged to turn things around.
PG&E will seek to recover its undergrounding expenses along with a guaranteed profit through customer bills using a process that will require state regulatory approval. Before providing its undergrounding costs, PG&E estimated that its spending from 2023 through 2026 would result in an average residential bill increase of $432 a year, according to the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a consumer advocacy group.
Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, said in a statement that PG&E’s request to tack on billions of dollars of additional spending for burying lines “adds insult to injury.”
In addition to detailing undergrounding cost projections, PG&E on Friday released its 2022 wildfire prevention plan. The company will expand a program that allows for power to be turned off more quickly when a tree or branch hits a power line.
The utility made the adjustment in certain areas last year after the start of the Dixie blaze, which began after a tree struck a line that wasn’t de-energized until hours later.
The new quick power shutoff policy will apply to all 25,500 miles of line in high fire risk areas this year, PG&E said.
PG&E will continue with its practice of shutting off power during windy and dry conditions while trying to limit the impact on customers. The utility will also continue aggressive tree trimming, equipment inspection and other grid-hardening efforts.
The fire prevention plans come in “response to the tremendous change we are seeing on climate risk, the mega-drought that California is in and the evolving wildfire threat,” Sumeet Singh, chief safety and risk officer, said in an interview.
California officials are bracing for another busy wildfire season as the state remains in the grip of a multiyear dry spell.
San Francisco-based PG&E has fallen 6.4% in the year to date, extending its 2.6% decline last year.