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Close to Home: Use budget surplus to bury power lines

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

As Californians prepare for another year of wildfires, it is astonishing that not a single dollar of the state’s unprecedented $76 billion budget surplus has been allocated to two fire prevention solutions we need but have been told we can never afford: burying the riskiest overhead power lines and creating localized microgrids.

Four of the six most destructive fires in the state since 2017 have been sparked by overhead power lines. These include the local Glass fire last year, as well as the devastating Tubbs and Camp fires, the two most destructive in California history.

Last year’s fires added more than 110 million tons of carbon to the air. This exacerbates the catastrophic climate change cycle that is causing record heat, drought and fires, while negating tens of billions of dollars’ worth of climate solutions that Californians are desperately investing in.

Jonathan Greenberg
Jonathan Greenberg

Replacing overhead power and transmission lines through tinderbox forests with locally controlled microgrids and burying even 0.025% of the state’s overhead lines in areas of highest fire risk are the most important solutions for protecting us from wildfires.

This also would eliminate the expanding number of power shutdowns that liability-averse utility companies order during high winds. These shutdowns impacted 2.5 million Californians last year, especially elderly people who depend on electrical medical devices.

Sen. Mike McGuire, co-chair of the state Senate’s wildfire working group, has joined with Gov. Gavin Newscom to budget $2 billion in necessary Cal Fire spending to prepare for, remediate and fight wildfires after they spread. Last week, McGuire also voted to help pass SB 99, which provides a legislative framework for clean energy community-based microgrids, which can shelter and help residents in times of power shutdowns.

Yet SB 99 is unfunded, and none of the $2 billion of will go to microgrids. These microgrids, in the long term, will need to be expanded into a fire-preventing decentralized system to replace a centralized power system that causes many of the state’s fires. PG&E and other utility companies have fought against this critical fire-preventing solution.

The time has come to demand solutions that serve Californians, not just utilities’ profits. New legislation will be required in the coming year to force PG&E to bury more than the paltry 30 miles of overhead lines it completed in 2020, and to empower communities to generate local power. They also must get compensated for generating that power when there are not emergencies, and to provide power to surrounding residents, independent of utility companies, when there are shutdowns and fire emergencies.

That’s why the Sonoma Independent, the Davis Community Vision Alliance and climate activists are supporting a grassroots Climate Action Solutions Addressing Fire Emergencies campaign and a Change.org petition to use 1% of the surplus to budget for long-term structural fire prevention solutions.

Please join us in calling on McGuire, who sits on the Senate’s budget committee, to support our proposed trailer bill to provide an emergency allocation of $750 million to the California Energy Commission for locally controlled microgrids in locations like the Sonoma County fairgrounds. Trailer bills can be passed without going through committees before the Legislature recesses in mid-July. Also ask McGuire to be part of a new legislative effort to force utility companies to bury, or cooperate in replacing, overhead lines that pose the highest fire risk.

Our proposed bill can be seen at SonomaIndependent.org.

Jonathan Greenberg, an award-winning investigative financial journalist, is editor of SonomaIndependent.org. He lives in Sebastopol.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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