Pacific Gas & Electric announced an ambitious plan Wednesday to put 10,000 miles of its power lines underground to prevent wildfires that would lead the utility to bankruptcy court in 2019.
The project, which will currently involve about 10 percent of the lines above ground, could cost tens of billions of dollars to complete.
The company, California’s largest electricity provider, said the work will target areas first hit by wildfires and expand to its entire service area, which includes 5.5 million electric customers in northern and central California.
PG&E’s announcement follows a preliminary report to state regulators last week that its equipment may have been the cause of the Dixie Fire, one of the state’s largest blazes that burned at least 85,000 acres. The fire is spreading in Butte County, where utility equipment caught fire that destroyed the city of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018.
Although utilities across the country have moved their power lines underground, no one has proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s plan.
“We need you to know that we are working night and day to solve this incredible problem,” said Patricia K., chief executive officer of PG&E Corporation, the parent of the utility. Popeye.
This year the company is doing 70 miles of lines underground, so expanding the work to 1,000 miles would be a leap. “She’s moonlight,” Ms Poppy said in a conversation with reporters. “It must be a shocking number because it’s a big goal.”
She said the company had planned to make the announcement in a few months, but had decided to do so because of growing public concern about fire safety.
Mark Tony, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the California Public Utilities Commission, said reducing wildfire risk was a priority, but the utility should develop a plan that would rate- Fund the mega project without overburdening the payers. Tony said the project could cost $40 billion based on an estimated $4 million per mile for underground power line proposals submitted by PG&E to state regulators.
“We would be living in a world where only the rich could afford electricity,” said Mr. Tony. “PG&E needs a plan to mitigate the most risk at the least possible cost for ratepayers.”
Ms. Poppe said the utility expects the cost per mile to drop substantially and the total cost to be $15 billion to $20 billion. “We can’t put a price on risk reduction and security,” she said.
The company said it can install about a quarter-mile of power lines underground a day, but aims to increase that to 1,000 miles or more to prevent fires.
PG&E has been at the center of the impact of climate change since a series of record-setting wildfires began burning in Northern California in 2017, many of them caused by utility equipment.
The utility has taken a number of steps to prevent the fire, including installing equipment to monitor weather conditions and allowing lines to be closed remotely. But the effectiveness of those efforts has increasingly come into question, especially after the company reported that its devices could be the cause of the Dixie Fire. Wildfire season has months to go before its peak.
State regulators and courts have fined utilities billions of dollars for failing to maintain their equipment and setting fires. The company, which emerged from bankruptcy last year after accumulating $30 billion in wildfire liabilities, pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to Paradise Fire.
It was a second felony for utility. In 2016, PG&E was found guilty of federal charges related to a gas pipeline explosion six years earlier in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, which killed eight people.