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Sen. Mike McGuire’s bill to push PG&E on power line burying project awaits Gov. Newsom’s signature

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s goal of burying 10,000 power lines in 10 years could soon become an obligation under state law, barring a veto from Gov. Gavin Newsom.

A bill that would require the state to more closely monitor the utility’s line-burying timelines and accelerate them through expedited permitting passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. It was introduced by Healdsburg Democrat and Senate Majority Leader Mike McGuire.

The bill is designed to hold the giant electrical utility accountable to the plan it promised Californians with two goals in mind: stopping the company’s aging infrastructure from sparking catastrophic wildfires, and maintaining reliable power distribution, McGuire said.

“Talk is cheap and I want to see action,” he said. “Let’s just be blunt about it. Californians don’t trust PG&E.”

The law also ties the state to a wildfire mitigation strategy that has been controversial for some. Critics say burying that many power lines carries considerable costs that will hurt ratepayers in the short term while generating a hefty return for PG&E shareholders in the long run.

Utility officials, including CEO Patti Poppe, counter that in the long run the project will pay off as it reduces electrical line upkeep and vegetation management needs.

But PG&E’s watchdogs say the utility has not proven that burying lines is the most cost-effective way to reduce wildfires. Though McGuire said he seeks to hold PG&E accountable, his bill gives utility shareholders what they want, Mark Toney, president of The Utility Reform Network, said.

“It is giving PG&E a blank check when it comes to ‘undergrounding,’” Toney said, “at enormous cost to ratepayers and at enormous profits pocketed by shareholders.”

Toney’s group Wednesday sent the governor a letter calling on him to veto the bill. Both McGuire and Toney said they did not know Newsom’s disposition toward the bill. The governor has until Sept. 30 to act. A Newsom spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

McGuire said he believes burying power lines would “save lives” in his sprawling district.

“This legislation will make the North Bay and North Coast safer in perpetuity,” he said. “We’ve got to get these lines underground.”

McGuire’s measure would expedite permitting for PG&E and other utilities to bury electrical lines in high risk fire areas by as much as two years, he said. It also carries new reporting requirements for utilities, and it grants regulators the ability to fine utilities that don’t bury power lines quickly enough.

Utilities that enroll in the expedited permitting program must prioritize electrical lines in the highest risk fire zones. Critics have questioned whether PG&E’s plan sufficiently does so.

The statute also creates an independent monitor to oversee the timelines and budgets utilities submit. It also requires utilities to seek federal and state infrastructure funding in an effort to lessen the eventual burden on ratepayers.

Reform advocates and utility officials tend to disagree on how much the plan to bury power lines will cost ratepayers. The Utility Reform Network, in its letter to the governor, argued the utility’s plan will cost $70 billion over “several decades” and could raise Californians’ electrical bills by $400 a year by 2032.

Poppe, the PG&E executive, said such estimates don’t incorporate cost savings from reductions in other safety expenses — managing plant and tree growth around the lines — for example.

“We will spend $1.7 billion this year trimming and removing trees,” she said in a recent interview with The Press Democrat. “And that's only a fraction of the high (fire) threat miles. That is an annual expense that will continue until we can underground the line. I can't cut down every tree in California.”

PG&E has estimated it will spend $11 billion burying power lines by 2026.

Toney argued the utility will not bury enough lines to bring vegetation management costs down sufficiently. And he worried the Legislature would lock Californians into a wildfire mitigation strategy before other cheaper alternatives can be developed.

Electrical bills are rising because of utilities efforts to harden the electric grid against wildfire and other climate change-related threats. PG&E customers have already seen a roughly $6 a month increase to their electrical bills this year to account for wildfire mitigation work, according to previous company announcements.

In an interview with The Press Democrat Wednesday, McGuire questioned Toney’s numbers. The utility has suggested a $16-$18 monthly bill increase for undergrounding over the next 10 years, he said, and his bill aims to bring those costs down.

He also rejected the idea that his bill gave PG&E something they wanted, calling himself among the utility’s “harshest critics.”

Power companies fought McGuire’s bill initially, the senator said, but switched to a neutral stance toward it over the last two weeks of the Legislative session.

“What I’m hoping is utilities have seen the light,” McGuire said. “They have seen the light that number one they should’ve been doing this work years ago, and number two, this is a common-sense bill.”

Poppe said she welcomed the measure.

Poppe took the helm of the utility as it emerged from a bankruptcy driven by its liability for billions of dollars in wildlife damage.

Over the last 12 years, PG&E’s electrical equipment started fires that burned nearly 1.5 million acres, destroyed 23,956 structures and killed 113 Californians, according to a federal judge’s January estimate.

Poppe has promised to lead a transition to a safer electrical grid as climate change and a legacy of poor forestry management, including by PG&E, drives the risks of fire starts higher. This year, technology that cuts power to lines where sensors detect a tree or branch strike reduced ignitions along power lines by 73%, Poppe said.

But central to Poppe’s promise to halt the company’s role in starting wildfires is burying the lines, she said, which virtually eliminates the risk of sparks while also avoiding the energy blackouts of safety shut-offs on high fire risk days. She cast the goal to bury 10,000 miles of lines within 10 years as a monumental infrastructure project for both the state and the utility.

“I want people to imagine it like we imagined building the Golden Gate Bridge,” she said.

Having the 10-year goal enshrined in statute will provide certainty to electrical worker labor unions and contractors that supply equipment and expertise to what is still a developing engineering feat, she said, and would enable PG&E to lower construction costs.

McGuire’s bill also “keeps us on the hook, frankly, holds us accountable to make sure we (complete) our lofty ambition.”

The utility was on pace to bury 175 miles of power lines in high risk fire zones this year, Poppe said. That target included around 70 miles in the North Bay, according to previous company proposals. By 2026, PG&E engineers hope to be burying as much as 1,200 miles a year to meet its goal.

Company officials say they believe speeds will accelerate as workers and engineers become more practiced at trenching and burying the lines.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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