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PG&E crews start digging in Rincon Valley to bury lines underground in effort to reduce power shutoffs

The sight of work crews digging up the roadway around Rincon Valley the next few weeks should come as a welcome relief to local residents as the project is part of a PG&E effort to bury power lines in the ground to reduce the number of preventive power outages for the coming wildfire season.

Crews from the San Francisco-based utility are digging a trench this week along Harville Road as part of an effort to keep 11,000 customers in the surrounding area from being significantly impacted by the utility’s severe weather-related power shutoff program.

Over the past few years these shutdowns – which happen in response to very dry or windy weather conditions – have occurred throughout Sonoma County as part of preventive moves by PG&E to ensure that tree branches and debris don’t make contact with power lines and spark wildfires.

The Rincon Valley work is the first time in the North Bay that PG&E will bury lines in an area outside a high-risk fire zone specifically for the purpose of reducing planned power shutdowns, said spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

“We were looking on how to reduce the impact on our customers in Sonoma County and look at the areas that keep getting impacted by (Public Safety Power Shutoffs) who are not in high fire-threat areas,” Contreras said. “The most important thing is the school district. There have been several schools in the Rincon Valley that have been impacted because of where their power lines run.”

The residential area is home to Maria Carrillo High School, Rincon Valley Middle School and Binkley Elementary School.

Crews will place 3.4 miles of overhead transmission lines — including an overhanging stretch along Calistoga Road — into the ground as part of the project, which is expected to finished by the end of August, Contreras said. The lines are located near a PG&E substation in the area.

The work will reduce the majority of the power shutoffs in past cases, specifically those that are part of shorter distribution lines. It would not be helpful for those that involve high-voltage transmission lines that travel long distance, she said.

The utility has been under pressure to do more to reduce the scope of the power shutoffs, especially in past cases where there was no threat of wildfire in some of the affected areas.

At the same time, PG&E has faced legal consequences for the role its equipment has played in past wildfires. Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, this spring, filed criminal charges against the company over the 2019 Kincade fire, which according to Cal Fire was triggered by the utility’s faulty equipment in the mountains northeast of Geyserville and forced a massive evacuation.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the area, said she was pleased by the work, noting that power shut-offs have inflicted a tremendous burden on the local community from small businesses that lose out on sales to vulnerable seniors who rely on powered medical equipment or drugs that need to be refrigerated.

“No one wants to go through the frequency of the power shutoffs that we’ve experienced in past years, so anything that they are doing to limit that would be greatly appreciated by me and a lot of our community,” Gorin said.

She would like to see PG&E do more burying of lines in other places in her district such as Glen Ellen and Kenwood, where the town’s fire department has been without a communications system in past shut-off events.

“(That) is intolerable. We nominally need to have resilience in electricity but also in out communications systems,” Gorin said.

PG&E also is taking other steps to reduce outages, such as hardening its power lines and poles and installing devices that split the distribution circuit from the rest of the system, which will narrow the scope of any outages. PG&E plans to install 29 such “sectionalizing devices” this year in Sonoma County, which is on top of the 89 installed in 2020.

In the aftermath of the work, some of the power poles in the area will remain in place to carry service lines that feed customer homes and telecommunications equipment.

The utility carried out a similar effort in 2018 when it placed power lines underground along a half mile stretch of the Bohemian Highway that was located in a high-risk area for wildfire. That work took about eight months and cost about $1.4 million, Contreras said.

PG&E calculates that the average cost per mile is approximately $2.3 million to convert underground electric distribution lines from overhead poles, Contreras said.

When asked about who will pay for such projects, she said PG&E would work through the California Public Utilities Commission in its rate-making process to recover costs for such efforts.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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