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You Can Prevent Forest Fires...At What Cost?

image credit: Photo 52304847 © Joe Sohm | Dreamstime.com
Nevelyn Black's picture
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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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Customers are upset about rate hikes and unsatisfied with wildfire mitigation plans.  “Everyone [is] just one paycheck away from being under the bridge somewhere,” Sacramento resident Le Anthony King said.  It’s not rare for new systems, vegetation management, improved safety measures and rate increases to go hand-in-hand.  However, ratepayers are questioning who should cover the costs and whether California utilities are doing enough.  “We need to strike a balance ensuring utilities making investments necessary to support safety and reliability while getting costs under control,” Susanne Casazza, the chief of staff for CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds said. 

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which paid $5 billion in penalties for poorly maintained power lines that caused wildfires, spent nearly $4.9 billion last year to prevent wildfires.  This year, amidst record-breaking drought conditions, it plans to raise its wildfire safety budget to almost $6 billion. PG&E spokesperson Lynsey Paulo said the company’s latest wildfire mitigation plan significantly accelerates “the undergrounding of powerlines in high fire-risk areas…”  Burying power lines "is a one-time investment that results in the highest level of risk reduction for catastrophic fires, significant reduction to the likelihood of (power shut-off) events, improved overall utility reliability, compliments other ongoing wildfire mitigation efforts, and results in fewer trees being trimmed or cut down on a yearly basis," PG&E's statement read. The company said it has installed more than 1,300 weather stations in high risk areas since 2019, as well as 153 high-definition cameras.  PG&E also implemented a new system that instantly shuts off power when equipment comes into contact with trees, animals or other elements that could start a fire.  PG&E says the new system prevented a slew of blazes last year, and argues that if it had been in effect earlier it would have kept the Dixie fire from starting. 

While everyone isn’t in favor of power shut-offs, all agree burying lines will reduce wildfires.  However, environmental groups want stricter rules and immediate results.

“Given the nightmarish wildfires that have become part of normal life in recent years, California taxpayers would be right to ask if they’re paying for utility watchdogs or lap dogs at the CPUC,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

Calif. Sen. Mike McGuire is pushing legislation that would require the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to develop a program to expedite the burial of transmission lines.  PG&E executives have launched a program to bury 10,000 miles of power lines within 10 years but  McGuire's bill would make it mandatory and force utilities to use federal infrastructure dollars before tapping ratepayer funds.

California utilities reported they had replaced or upgraded equipment on 1,540 miles of lines in 2020. This was a significant accomplishment but according to the California State Auditor’s report, there are 40,000 miles of bare power lines in high fire-risk areas in the state.  With summer around the corner, who should cover the costs to complete this extensive work?

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