Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has embarked on an ambitious project to bury thousands of miles of power lines underground to avoid starting fires with its equipment and to avoid shutting off power in hot, windy weather.

AP Photo/Haven Daley

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) – Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is working on an ambitious project to bury thousands of miles of power lines in an effort to prevent equipment from starting fires and cutting power. electricity in hot and windy weather.

PG&E announced last year that it planned to bury 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of power lines over the next decade at an expected cost of $15 billion to $30 billion. The announcement came just days after PG&E notified regulators that a 70-foot (23-meter) pine tree that toppled over one of its power lines sparked a major fire in Butte County, the same rural area about 145 miles (233 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco where another fire started by its equipment killed more than 80 people and destroyed thousands of homes in 2018.

Since 2017, aging equipment at the nation’s largest utility has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires that have wiped out more than 23,000 homes and businesses and killed more than 100 people. In 2019, PG&E filed for bankruptcy after facing billions of dollars in fines and wildfire lawsuits.

In addition to preventing wildfires, PG&E says burying power lines underground will result in fewer disruptive power outages for public safety, which have become more frequent in recent years due to dry weather and associated high winds. to climate change.

PG&E had previously buried power lines as systems are rebuilt following destructive wildfires, such as the massive blaze that wiped out most of the town of Paradise in 2018. This month, it has began work on a plan to place 175 miles (280 kilometers) of power lines underground this year in central and northern California, said PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

The company said it plans to bury up to 1,200 miles a year to meet its goal.

“The basement reduces the risk of ignition by 99%, so we start in the highest fire risk areas, district areas with high fire threat, and we also prioritize areas where we can reduce the number of power outages for public safety,” she said.

She said burying power lines costs $3.75 million per mile.

“As we increase line miles every year and grow, we expect these costs to drop to around $2.5 million per mile by the end of 2026,” she added.

But some critics of PG&E’s plan say it’s too expensive and will take too long. The plan asks taxpayers to fund the project through higher utility bills.

The Utility Reform Network, or TURN, a consumer advocacy organization, wonders if PG&E will be able to continue to properly maintain its power lines while focusing on burying power lines, which will take at least a decade.

“It would take years and years and we need to make sure the company is focused on its compliance in the meantime,” said Katy Morsony, staff attorney at TURN. “Also trying to engage in this massive capital investment program at the same time, it’s not clear that they can both properly manage compliance in the interim, as well as successfully and efficiently the landfill program.”

PG&E, a 117-year-old company, generates about $20 billion in revenue a year while serving a 70,000 square mile (181,300 square kilometer) service area in northern and central California that includes farmland , forests and big cities. and the global technology hub of Silicon Valley.

One of the locations where the lines are currently buried is near the Sonoma County site of the 2017 Tubbs Wildfire that killed at least 22 people and destroyed thousands of homes in and around Santa Rosa.

Proponents say burying the lines also provides a more aesthetically pleasing California landscape.

Tom Sullivan, who rebuilt after losing his home in the Tubbs fire in 2017, said he was willing to pay a little more for his electricity if it meant there was less risk of another devastating fire.

“It’s something that needs to be done, so we’re all going to have to pay for it. Either that or we’re going to end up with more fires,” Sullivan said.

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