PG&E Pledges to Bury Its Distribution Power Lines in Paradise

1 min
PG&E subcontractors assess vegetation at risk of catching fire in Paradise, in the days following the Camp Fire in Nov., 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

At a town hall meeting in Paradise on Wednesday, PG&E Vice President Aaron Johnson made an announcement to a community that lost nearly everything in November's Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern California history.

Johnson said the company would underground the entire electrical distribution system as the town rebuilds — but first he had something else to say.

PG&E and the Camp Fire
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"I stand in front of you here tonight on behalf of my company. I want to apologize for the role our equipment had in this tragedy. Nothing I can say, nothing I could stand up in front of you and say, is going to undo that and I know that, we know that," said Johnson.

Johnson then announced the company would bury the power distribution lines in Paradise and some nearby communities — an option that was determined to be more expensive but safer than reinstalling overhead lines. The announcement brought residents at the meeting to their feet.

The cost of the undergrounding project is still undetermined, but PG&E said it will be done at no additional cost to the town as part of the utility's overall grid hardening efforts. PG&E officials said transmission lines in the area Paradise will not be part of the project, as those lines were not damaged in the fire.

Cal Fire announced last week that its investigation had determined a faulty PG&E transmission line — not a distribution line — sparked the fire, which left 85 people dead and displaced tens of thousands of Butte County residents.

Transmission lines are higher-voltage lines that carry electricity from a power plant to a distribution substation. Distribution lines are lower-voltage lines that connect substations to residential and commercial buildings. It is only the distribution system that PG&E plans to underground in Paradise.

"As part of our commitment to help this community recover and to harden our electric system to protect against wildfires, PG&E has decided to build our electric distribution system underground in the town of Paradise and in some of the surrounding areas like parts of Magalia," Johnson told the Council. "We decided to rebuild in this way after a careful review of factors, town planning and safety considerations."

PG&E also got approval on Wednesday to create a $107 million fund to help fire victims.

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Johnson said the undergrounding project would take about five years because of design work and planning for future road widening and potential sewer systems in the town. Johnson also could not specify which areas beyond Paradise would be included in the project.

He said undergrounding the power lines immediately after the fire would have caused enormous reconstruction delays. But as Paradise begins to rebuild, PG&E will need to replace 74 miles of damaged natural gas lines. That will allow the company to bury both electric and gas infrastructure in the same trench.

While PG&E begins work on the town's new power network, it will simultaneously install temporary overhead service to meet individual and neighborhood needs as people rebuild.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.

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