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Newsom signs bill accelerating placement of underground power lines

A bill accelerating the installation of underground power lines in California has been signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom – but San Diego Gas & Electric has said the legislation will not have much impact on its strategy to reduce electricity incidence of forest fires in its service territory. .

Senate Bill 884, introduced by Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, was born after a series of wildfires in northern California were traced to power lines and Pacific Gas & Electric equipment. Overhead lines that fall to the ground in extremely windy and dry conditions can start fires and when McGuire introduced the bill, he quoted analysts who say placing lines underground can reduce ignitions by 99%.

Newsom signed SB 884 into law on Thursday.

“Year after year, these utility-caused wildfires have become our reality,” said McGuire, who is also the Senate Majority Leader, said in a press release. “This law will help end this madness for the health and safety of all Californians.”

PG&E has announced plans to place 10,000 miles of power lines underground over the next decade, calling it “the best long-term solution to keeping customers and communities safe.”

But placing underground lines is expensive.

The California Public Utilities Commission estimate the costs of burying existing overhead distribution lines for each of the three major utilities owned by state investors:

  • PG&E: $3.4 to $6.1 million per mile
  • SDG&E: $2.64 to $3.696 million per mile, and
  • Southern California Edison: $1.85 to $5.23 million per mile.

The Public Service Reform Network (TURN)a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group, predicted that by 2032, PG&E customers would pay $400 more each year on their electric bills to pay for PG&E’s 10,000-mile landfill plan.

The group had urged Newsom to veto the bill, saying it was too costly for taxpayers, would dampen the influence of the Public Utilities Commission and complicate California’s effort to get 100% of its electricity from sources. carbon free by 2045.

“This will really hurt consumers who can’t already pay their bills and will really slow the achievement of electrification goals,” said TURN Executive Director Mark Toney. “People won’t want to electrify if it’s costing them more than the fossil fuels they’re currently using.”

A team from Julian is working on a San Diego Gas & Electric project to place power lines underground.


TURN and critics of SB 884 say they fear the new law will lead major state utilities to expand landfill projects, with taxpayers footing the bill.

But SDG&E, in an email to the Union-Tribune on Friday, said the bill “will not significantly impact our strategy of going underground.”

Spokesman Alex Welling said the utility is “aggressively working to harden 100% of our transmission system in the high fire risk district by 2026, which is a comprehensive approach including strategic burial, wood-to-steel pole conversions and covered conductor.”

The covered conductor consists of placing several layers of protection on the electrical lines to reduce the risk of ignition and to help prevent faults due to contact with branches or animals.

Welling said about 44% of SDG&E’s distribution system has been underground in the utility’s high fire risk district.

In its latest wildfire mitigation plan that utilities submit to state officials, SDG&E said this year that it has:

  • buried about 58 miles of power lines, which would provide cut protection for more than 2,000 customers
  • added 60 covered driver miles
  • inspected approximately 250,000 trees in the high fire risk district of SDG&E and
  • widened the tree clearance to 25 feet, rather than 10-12 feet.

SDG&E has spent around $3 billion fighting and preventing wildfires – which are passed on to taxpayers – since the deadly Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice fires in 2007 that destroyed more than 1,300 homes, killed two people, injured 40 firefighterss and forced around 15,000 to seek refuge at Qualcomm Stadium.

Under SB 884, California utilities may submit plans for underground lines in high fire risk districts to the Office of Energy Infrastructure Security. The agency would then approve or deny the plan within nine months.

If the OEIS accepts the plan, the Public Utilities Commission will also have no more than nine months to approve or reject it.

The new law also requires utilities to file progress reports, hire independent monitors to verify compliance, and apply for funding to reduce the costs of their plans to ratepayers. In addition, the Public Utilities Commission would have the power to impose penalties on utilities if they do not “substantially comply” with their landfill plans.