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Why won’t California bury its power lines?

9 most destructive wildfires in California history

The Camp Fire has broken historic records for destruction. See which wildfires have burned the most structures in California history.
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The Camp Fire has broken historic records for destruction. See which wildfires have burned the most structures in California history.

I started pushing for Southern California’s regional utility to bury its power lines three years ago, after the fourth utility-caused fire in a decade hit Laguna Beach, where I was mayor.

Our fruitless efforts took us from meetings with Southern California Edison to the state Capitol to a regulator’s doorstep. The utility has pushed back at every turn, citing the high cost of burying power lines even as utility-sparked wildfires have taken scores of lives and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Cal Fire found PG&E’s overhead utility equipment responsible for 17 Northern California fires that burned 190,000 acres in 2017, destroying over 3,200 structures and claiming 22 lives.

Now the Camp Fire, likely sparked by utility lines, has decimated the town of Paradise, taking 13,000 buildings and more than 80 lives.

Southern California Edison admitted its equipment sparked the 2017 Thomas Fire that burned over 280,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroying more than 1,000 buildings and claiming 2 lives.

Opinion

The utility companies say they will keep us safe by shutting off power in high winds and aggressively trimming vegetation. Clearly, that’s not working.

The City of Laguna Beach asked SCE to bury lines in the area and offered to pay part of the cost. The proposal would have protected residents and would have cost SCE less than it might have to pay if its equipment sparks a fire that burns even 100 homes in our city, according to our estimates. But the utility said it didn’t pencil out, preferring to insure against the risk of loss from wildfires.

Bob Whalen.jpg

We approached Senator John Moorlach, who introduced Senate Bill 1463, which would have required utilities to bury lines in the highest-risk areas when local governments were willing to help.

The bill was watered down after pushback from the utilities and their lobbyists, but would still have strengthened oversight from the California Public Utilities Commission and Cal Fire.

The bill passed, but Governor Brown vetoed it, suggesting we take our concerns to CPUC.

The agency eventually classified most of our city as being at the highest level of fire risk, but hasn’t mandated undergrounding or set aside money for the highest-risk areas.

On its website, PG&E states that it costs $3 million a mile to bury lines, about four times the cost of an overhead system. But some estimates put the utility companies’ potential liability for the 2017 and 2018 fires at more than $20 billion -- enough to bury many hundreds of miles of lines.

Leaders in Sacramento need to intervene to stop the shortsighted decision-making by our utility companies and require them to bury lines in heavily populated, high-risk fire zones.

SCE recently requested a $582 million rate increase that dedicates not one dollar to burying lines. The state is projected to have a $30 billion reserve by the end of the next fiscal year. A portion should be dedicated to undergrounding in the most vulnerable areas. The state should require utility companies to draw the rest from shareholders, not ratepayers.

Lawmakers should create an independent body of experts to regulate wildfire safety, similar to the way airlines and automobiles are regulated.

The human toll, health effects, economic costs and environmental degradation of utility-caused fires make a strong case for undergrounding. Governor-Elect Newsom should take this step to reduce the number and intensity of California wildfires.

Robert Whalen is a city council member and former mayor of Laguna Beach. His email address is bobwhalen1@gmail.com.
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