PG&E, in Reversal, to Bury Power Lines in Fire-Prone Areas


PG&E Corp. said Wednesday that it plans to bury 10,000 miles of power lines to reduce wildfire risk throughout Northern California at an estimated cost of up to $20 billion, reversing earlier stance that doing so would be prohibitively expensive.

The utility, which serves about 16 million customers in northern and central California, says the effort will significantly reduce the chances of its power lines causing wildfires due to drought and climate change. increases the risk of large, fast-moving wildfires.

Chief executive Patti Poppe said: “We know that we have long argued that underground operations are too expensive. “This is where we say it’s too expensive not to tamper with. Life is on the wire. “

PG&E equipment has caused more than 20 wildfires in California over the past few years that have killed more than 100 people and burned thousands of homes. Most fires are ignited when trees or branches touch the company wire.

PG&E revealed to California authorities earlier this week that one of its power lines may have been involved in igniting one of the fires currently ravaging the West, the Dixie Fire, which broke out. over 85,000 acres in Northern California. The company said in a regulatory filing that an outage responder discovered the fire beneath one of its distribution lines in Feather River Canyon in the forested Sierra Nevada foothills.

Smoke from wildfires in the western United States and Canada spread as far east as the Tri-State area of ​​New York City this week, affecting air quality and creating hazy skies in the morning. Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Staff found two blown fuses and a tree that had touched a wire. State fire investigators collected some equipment from the line as part of an ongoing investigation on Wednesday. the cause of the fire, was forced to evacuate communities near the canyon. It is burning northeast of Paradise, destroyed in 2018 by a fire caused by a PG&E transmission line.

The deadliest wildfire in California history has killed 84 people. The company last year pleaded guilty 84 counts of manslaughter for its role in starting the fires, becoming one of the few US corporations ever found guilty of murder.

Poppe said the Dixie Fire and proximity to Paradise prompted the company to push ahead with the announcement of a plan – which had been in the works for months – to bring down a significant number of its lines. PG&E estimates the work will cost about $20 billion, although it has yet to set a deadline on when the work will be completed.

PG&E has in recent years gone to great lengths to reduce the risk of wildfires across its entire business territory by trimming or removing millions of trees and strengthening its lines for safe operation in the future. periods of high winds, this increases the risk of tree branches flying into the live wire.

The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 to settle billions of dollars in liability costs caused by fires caused by company equipment. Company appeared from chapter 11 last year after settling claims for $25.5 billion.

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Firefighters worked to contain the spread of the Dixie Fire in Northern California on Sunday.

Image:
david swanson / Reuters

Another deadly wildfire could have dire financial consequences for PG&E, which has issued massive amounts of debt and equity as part of a $59 billion reorganization plan. . The company’s stock has plummeted this week on news that its equipment may have ignited the Dixie Fire.

The financial consequences of more wildfires will also affect victims of past fires, who now indirectly hold shares in the company through a $13.5 billion trust fund. was established to gradually make up for their losses in the coming years. PG&E funded half the trust in cash and half in company stock. The trust held about a fifth of the company’s outstanding shares when PG&E emerged from bankruptcy.

Poppe said there are more than eight million trees in the distance from the company’s power lines. It plans to spend $1.4 billion this year pruning more than a million trees and removing more than 300,000 of them.

“However, we are still not satisfied,” she said. “Obviously we’re not making progress fast enough.”

Ms. Poppe says that as the company installs more power lines, it will be able to significantly reduce the cost of pruning a lot of trees and other costs associated with making overhead lines safer.

PG&E also anticipates it could reduce the frequency of power outages for public safety reasons by placing more lines underground. In recent years, the company has begun to proactively cut off power during strong winds, increasing the likelihood of its power lines causing a fire due to contract tree or equipment failure.

The proposed work only a fraction of the PG&E’s electrical system, which includes roughly 80,000 miles of lower-voltage distribution lines and 20,000 miles of higher-voltage transmission lines, many of which run through areas at high risk of wildfire.

However, the company still calls the scope of work unprecedented in the industry. It plans to roll out work prioritization targeting high-risk areas in the coming months. It will initially focus on burying distribution lines, and may later consider doing the same with transmission lines.

PG&E is on criminal probation following a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno, south of San Francisco. The company was convicted of violating federal pipeline safety laws.

A federal judge that oversaw PG&E’s probation for months has urged the company to do more to manage risks to its electrical system and recently recommended it do more to Tackle the threat of fallen trees on his line.

California’s utility regulators have also stepped up scrutiny of PG&E and threatened the possibility of a state takeover of the company if it continues to lapse in safety, though such a move is considered unlikely.

Write letter for Katherine Blunt at Katherine.Blunt@wsj.com

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