Over the past several years, working men and women have been thrust onto the front line of California’s wildfire crisis.
As leaders of two of the largest organizations whose members are tasked with responding to these disasters, we’re concerned with the California Public Utilities Commission’s recent proposal to scale back Pacific Gas and Electric’s undergrounding efforts.
PG&E had proposed to place roughly 2,100 miles of high-risk lines underground between now and 2026. Yet the commission’s recent proposed decision cuts that figure down to just 200 miles. A second, alternate proposed decision cuts the figure to just shy of 1,000 miles. That is well below what will be needed to keep communities safe from extreme weather in the years ahead.
Of the 2,000 miles that PG&E had planned to bury in the next three years, the CPUC’s proposals reduce undergrounding to as little as 200 miles total. The balance would be modified by wrapping the line’s fire-causing conductors in a protective coating, doing nothing to prevent these lines from falling trees and high winds.
This approach leaves significantly more risk on the PG&E system. Covered conductors will also require ongoing costs associated with vegetation management and the continued use of safety-related outages.
The commission could make a final decision as soon as November 2.
This decision will hinder PG&E’s efforts to underground infrastructure and significantly reduce the risk of utility-caused ignitions.
The initial proposal to bury 2,100 miles of powerlines underground over the next three years would cost the typical customer about $3.40 a month. Undergrounding reduces the risk of ignitions in areas at the highest risk of wildfire by nearly 98%. There is no more effective, one-time permanent solution to reducing the risk of wildfire ignition from electrical equipment. However, the CPUC is proposing the company instead install insulated overhead powerlines which have to be rebuilt over and over again, and which, by themselves, only reduce ignition risk by 65%. This leaves an unacceptable level of risk on the system.
When communities like Paradise or Greenville have been destroyed, the men and women of the California Professional Firefighters are the first on scene. They’ve witnessed the devastation and loss firsthand, and they know all too well that the conditions that have allowed such disasters are becoming more and more common as the years tick on. They’ve seen the impact that drier winters, hotter summers and more extreme weather patterns have had on California’s forests and recognize that more needs to be done to keep communities safe.
Similarly, the members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 1245, have responded to these disasters and are tasked with rebuilding and getting the lights back on, often before the smoke has even begun to clear. They, too, have witnessed the large-scale devastation and yet, for years, have had their rebuilding efforts limited to the same overhead lines that remain vulnerable to extreme weather in the years to come.
After seeing this play out time and time again, we recognize that there is a better way.
In 2021, when PG&E announced its plans to place 10,000 miles of high-risk electrical lines underground, our organizations were among the first who stood up to help. As members of the company’s Undergrounding Advisory Group, we shared our perspective and helped shape the company’s plans for a multi-year undergrounding campaign that buries lines starting with those posing the greatest risk.
Now, more than two years into these plans, the efforts to underground are being jeopardized by proposed decisions by the CPUC.
Instead of allowing PG&E to bury high-risk lines, the commission is suggesting that the company instead replace lines with covered conductors to save costs. Our members know the risks present throughout PG&E’s service area and believe PG&E has thoroughly assessed the need to move toward undergrounding rather than other mitigation options.
It’s estimated that covered conductors alone will only reduce 65% of the wildfire risk on a given line, compared to the near total elimination of that risk that would come from undergrounding. Our members can also tell you that when trees fall into lines or poles fail during extreme winds, covered conductors will still end up on the ground, creating additional hazards for the men and women responding to the scene.
PG&E has put forward a solution that works after thoughtful deliberation with stakeholders who know the issue best. We ask that the CPUC take the same thoughtful approach, reconsider the proposal and allow these lines to be put underground before it’s too late.
Bob Dean is the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245. Brian Rice is the president of the California Professional Firefighters.