After electrical power lines were found to have caused several of the recent wildfires, countless area residents came to the same conclusion: Bury the backcountry lines to prevent future blazes.
It’s a solution that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, says is worth discussing.
But the utility industry says most ratepayers balk at burying lines when confronted with the actual costs.
San Diego Gas & Electric, which notes that it has a higher percentage of buried lines than most utilities, says undergrounding many of this region’s backcountry lines would be prohibitively expensive given the rugged terrain, as well as technically difficult for the highest-voltage lines.
But many area residents say the higher cost of burying power lines should be measured against the threat of additional wildfires, which have caused billions in damage in recent years.
The debate over undergrounding in this region is being further stoked by SDG&E’s proposal to build a new overhead power line through the backcountry, the 150-mile long Sunrise Powerlink. The $1.3 billion line would run from Imperial County across Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and then through a number of North County communities that were burned by the recent fires.
SDG&E says Sunrise is needed to ensure local electric reliability and to access electricity from renewable-energy projects expected in Imperial County.
Opponents say the line would be environmentally damaging, isn’t needed and would heighten the threat of fire. They suggest money for the project would be better spent on building renewable-energy projects and conservation within the county.
SDG&E, which serves 1.4 million customers, has about 60 percent of its 18,000 miles of power lines buried. The utility’s customers pay about $60 million annually to bury additional lines. From 2002 through 2006, SDG&E buried about 125 miles of power lines.
But at a cost of about $1 million per mile or more, according to SDG&E – and with a high priority until now placed on aesthetics not fire prevention – the existing undergrounding program isn’t enough for those who say a crash effort is needed to prevent backcountry power lines from sparking new blazes.
Sandra Dijkstra, a literary agent and homeowner in Pine Hills, said the lesson of recent fires is that every county resident – not just rural homeowners – has a stake in doing all that is feasible to prevent new fires.
That means the cost of burying power lines in fire-prone backcountry areas should be borne by all SDG&E customers.
“These fires want to burn through to the coast,” Dijkstra said. “So what happens in the mountains is important to the people on the coast. There need to be tax incentives for SDG&E and for individual property owners so that burying power lines becomes the default choice.”
Tom Hoffman, staff chief of law enforcement for Cal Fire, said his department’s interest in undergrounding has grown since it determined the role of power lines in the recent fires. Cal Fire determined that the Witch Creek, Guejito and Rice Canyon fires – which destroyed nearly 1,350 homes – were started by power lines.
Hoffman agreed that with the billions of dollars in damage from the recent fires and the Cedar Fire of 2003, the cost of undergrounding should be considered in a new context.
But Hoffman said new requirements for burying lines would have to come from the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates SDG&E and the state’s other investor-owned power companies. It is the PUC that would authorize rate hikes or other financing mechanisms for burying electric lines.
“Undergrounding has become a real hot topic since the fire siege,” Hoffman said. “It is a dialogue I would like to have between Cal Fire and the PUC, and it’s something we are exploring.”
The utilities commission says undergrounding lines is among the topics included in its review of the recent fires, but it offered no details on how that investigation might proceed.
“We have not taken anything off the table and will be looking at all options as part of our investigation,” said Susan Carothers, a spokeswoman for the commission.
Michael Niggli, chief operating officer of SDG&E, said the utility did not consider an underground option for most of its proposed Sunrise Powerlink because burying 500-kilovolt lines isn’t “commercially feasible” for significant distances.
These high-voltage lines, typically mounted on tall latticework towers, have never been implicated in causing a California fire, Niggli added.
As for lower-voltage lines, he said undergrounding is a fire-prevention option. But, Niggli said, lower-voltage lines cause only a minority of fires and suggested that other measures might be cheaper and equally effective in preventing fires. These lines are typically mounted on wooden poles and are closer to the ground and vegetation.
One solution, Niggli said, would be to increase the standard distance required by the PUC between trees or other vegetation and power lines. That would increase SDG&E’s tree-trimming costs, which now run about $20 million yearly, but would be cheaper than undergrounding.
“We have asked the PUC to take a look at that,” Niggli said.
He added that the utility prefers that elected officials and communities set priorities for the ongoing undergrounding programs.
A study sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry group, concluded last year that although many utility customers express an interest in undergrounding, they balk when confronted with the actual costs.
SDG&E says most home builders in the backcountry decline to pay the four-to six-fold cost differential for burying connections to individual homes and opt for overhead.
A study in Virginia concluded that undergrounding all power lines in that state would cost about $3,500 per customer, according to the industry group.
It also noted that while undergrounding lines tends to reduce the number of electrical outages, burying them increases the duration of electric outages when they do occur. And buried lines may not last as long as overhead lines.
The bottom line, said the industry group, is that the costs of undergrounding could not be justified by improvements in reliability alone.
Until the California wildfires, the most intense undergrounding discussions have been in the hurricane regions of the Southeast. After state regulators allowed Florida Power & Light to pay 25 percent of the cost for undergrounding lines, scores of Florida communities began initiatives to convert overhead systems.
The affluent community of Jupiter Island had a particular advantage. Its mayor, Charles Falcone, is a former executive with a major Midwest utility. So when FP&L presented its bill for undergrounding to Jupiter Island, Falcone found ways to lower the cost by at least 25 percent.
He said the utility industry has a financial incentive not to do undergrounding. “When they bury power lines, they get no new customers and no new revenue, but they have to do a lot of work and make a capital investment.”
Falcone said the utilities see existing electric-distribution systems as cash cows, fully paid-for assets that continue to generate income. “And that means they earn a beautiful return on those assets,” Falcone said.
So while utility executives frequently cite a tenfold cost differential between underground and overhead lines, the former utility executive said the differential is more typically fivefold.
And in some states, that can be further reduced. In Florida, for example, utilities must reduce the billed cost of undergrounding by what they would have paid for new overhead power lines over the same area.
Falcone added that his community is finding that this is a particularly advantageous time for undergrounding projects, because contractors are hard-pressed by the housing slowdown and are bidding rock-bottom prices to keep their crews working.
But, he said, the cost of burying high-voltage rural transmission power lines for significant distances may still remain prohibitive. The undergrounding in Jupiter involves lower-voltage distribution lines.
Opponents of the Sunrise Powerlink, meanwhile, say that while undergrounding parts of the project would be an improvement, the new transmission line would still be unacceptable.
“Let’s spend that money on in-county electric generation, including solar energy and other renewables, along with conservation,” said Carolyn Morrow of Communities United for Sensible Power, which opposes the proposed power line.
By Craig D. Rose
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2 December 2007