Why undergrounding power wires is the best option for PG&E


In a recent editorial, this newspaper urged the California Public Utilities Commission to “prioritize protecting Northern Californians over utility profits” as it considers our four-year plan to maintain and improve the energy system.

We couldn’t agree more that the CPUC must make the safety of our customers its top priority.

Unfortunately, neither of the CPUC’s counterproposals to our plan would do enough to keep our customers and communities safe. In fact, they gut our long-term undergrounding program that would permanently reduce wildfire risk and cut funding for some critical gas-safety programs.

We have proposed moving 2,100 miles of powerlines underground over the next three years at an additional cost to the typical customer of 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 solution to reducing the risk of wildfire ignition from electrical equipment. However, the CPUC is proposing we instead install insulated overhead powerlines, which by themselves only reduce ignition risk by 65%.

Rather than prioritizing safety, the CPUC’s proposals call for less-effective wildfire mitigation measures.

This newspaper’s editorial board suggests that PG&E is prioritizing profits at the expense of its customers. In fact, since 2020, PG&E has reinvested 100% of its profits back into improving our gas and electric systems and into supporting our communities.

As a result, we now operate one of the safest gas systems in America. And through adding layers of wildfire protection, we achieved a 68% reduction in ignitions from electrical equipment in high fire-threat districts in 2022, compared to the 2018-2020 average.

But the risk of wildfire remains extremely high. There are more than 6,100 wildland fires every year in our state, with 1.1 million acres burned.

Moving 2,100 miles of powerline underground will virtually eliminate the risk of ignitions from electrical equipment. It will safeguard communities across more than 20 counties prone to the strongest winds, lowest humidity and most dangerous fuel conditions. But the CPUC’s proposals say as little as 200 miles should be enough.

Our customers have lived through the devastating consequences of wildfires. They have told us they want undergrounding. The local leaders who represent them want more undergrounding in their communities.

Undergrounding also is less expensive in the long run because we’re not removing or trimming trees every year, and we have fewer above-ground line maintenance costs. Undergrounding also makes power more reliable by reducing outages caused by winter storms, and in some cases eliminates the need for safety shutoffs. Our analysis shows that over the life of the proposed 2,100 miles, our operations and maintenance costs would be reduced by approximately $1 billion.

When we’re asked if we can afford to put powerlines underground, our answer is simple and direct: How can we afford not to?

Patti Poppe is chief executive officer of PG&E Corp.

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