PG&E announced a safety initiative to protect communities from the threat of wildfire by moving 10,000 miles of power lines in areas with high fire risk underground.
It will be working with “local, state, federal, tribal and regulatory officials” to develop a plan and determine which sites to underground based on factors including safety and proximity to existing water, natural gas and drainage systems, according to a PG&E press release.
The company aims to underground more than 1,000 miles of overhead lines per year, in comparison to its current rate of 70 miles per year.
To achieve this, PG&E will work with other utility providers to share costs and expand its workforce, Paul Doherty, spokesperson for PG&E, said in a statement.
“We’re starting now and we won’t stop until we’ve finished,” Doherty said in the statement. “The scale of this project is certainly unprecedented, but we are committed to making our vision a reality.”
According to Michael Gollner, campus assistant professor of mechanical engineering, most wildfires in California are due to high wind events, which cause parking on power lines or equipment failure.
That kind of event can generate a spark that lands and starts a fire, which has a heightened risk of occurring due to the dry conditions and high winds, Gollner added.
“There will always be something to spark fires,” Gollner said. “However we do see that there are a ton of ignitions with power transmission equipment, and unfortunately it happens during these hot, dry conditions and so there’s a lot more that can be done.”
Bill Stewart, campus forestry specialist, said its plans are optimistic and that PG&E’s initiative may go slower than expected.
According to Stewart, the biggest problem will be the cost. Power lines are used because they are a cheap way to provide power, but PG&E’s new plan will require immense trenching, similar to building pipelines.
“They seem to think they can do it cheaper if they do it on a big scale, and they’re definitely hoping to get a lot of costs being put on ratepayers,” Stewart said.
UC Berkeley has personally been impacted by the wildfire crisis, as the summer forestry camp that campus offers students had to be evacuated due to the fire risk posed by the Dixie Fire, according to Scott Stephens, campus professor of fire science.
In 2020, campus’s power line that goes over the East Bay Hills also had to be shut down due to fire risk, Stewart added.
“I don’t believe in the 104 years that we’ve been up there teaching students we’ve ever had to evacuate because of a fire,” Stephens said. “So in some ways, this is a real big event because it also impacted our property up there and our institution of teaching.”