MOORLACH UPDATE — Burying Electric Lines and Bills — October 13, 2019

Greenhouse Gas Generator

Since 2016, the year that I could officially start introducing legislation, I’ve been working in the wildfire space. This year I had two bills, SB 584 and SB 535.

SB 584 is referred to in the USA TODAY piece on the topic it addresses, the possibility of undergrounding electricity distribution lines (see https://moorlach.cssrc.us/content/senate-bill-584-wildfire-mitigation-through-undergrounding-power-lines).

My bill was simple. For more than 50 years, electric utilities have Rule 20 funding which can be used to underground for beautification purposes. For those cities that do not avail themselves of the funds, then redirect them to those cities that have a clear and high risk need. After passing without opposition in two Senate committees, it was unceremoniously killed in Senate Appropriations Committee without explanation, other than the Chair just can.

SB 535, would require the California Air Resources Board to include greenhouse gases created by wildfires in their total calculations and published graphics. Such data would shame the electric utilities to do more in California’s efforts to address climate change. This bill went successfully through both chambers, but also died an unceremonious death in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, for the same reason (see MOORLACH UPDATE — SB 359 and Group 10).

One wonders if those on the other side of the aisle are truly serious about reducing electric utility caused wildfires and the impact they have on our planet.

Last Three Bills

The deadline for signing or vetoing bills is today (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Bills to Watch After the Summer Break — July 20, 2019).

Yesterday, the Governor signed SB 754, which will save the homeowners associations in Laguna Woods significant printing and mailing costs when they hold elections where there are not enough candidates to fill the slate. Those candidates would win by acclamation and the administrative costs would be avoided.

The Governor vetoed SB 598, reviewing the implementation of iXBRL at the state and local levels. It is currently used by members of the SEC and FDIC. It was going to be overseen by the State Treasurer and included in her budget. Why a Governor who added $40 million to the state’s budget for “digital innovation” would veto the bill is difficult to understand. It’s either dis-ingenuousness, insincerity, or confusion.

Today, the Governor also vetoed SB 184, my three-year effort to remedy what is known as cliff-vesting for California’s judges. This very important class of employees has a pension formula that is unlike any offered in the state. My office worked with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System on the language. We appealed to the Governor’s office to include the minor cost in his budget to address this iniquity in all 58 counties. He didn’t. But, he did give your hard-earned tax dollars to the Democrats in the Legislature to dole out in their districts. He had a chance to boost the morale of the bench and he missed this opportunity. The priorities reflected by favoring the crass doling out of pork over rectifying a critical pension formula flaw for judges is very disturbing.

25th Anniversary Look Back

The October 13, 1994 edition of the OC Register had the following Metro section, front-page headline, “Citron says he zigged, Fed zagged — GOVERNMENT: The county’s investment chief says he erred in believing that interest rates would stay low.” The piece was by Chris Knap (see MOORLACH UPDATE — OC Register Coverage Look Back — September 16, 2019).

The piece addressed Orange County Treasurer Robert Citron’s upcoming report to the Board of Supervisors (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Reducing Debt Transparency? — September 25, 2019).

Here are the last two of this five paragraph coverage:

In his report, which Citron submits to the Board of Supervisors next week, he assures the cities, school districts and other investors that their principal remains safe. But he said his forecasting error will mean reduced interest earnings in the coming year.

“Nobody’s going to lose a penny of principal,” Citron said in the interview. “And we’ll still be earning on average more than other government treasuries.”

This was not enough for Chris Knap, who would also provide another piece in the Metro section on page 5, titled “Citron’s investment report rebuts primary challenger — GOVERNMENT: The treasurer-tax collector defends his strategy on securities.” Chris Knap attempted to contact me for his stories. But, as I promised his publisher, David Threshie, I would no longer accept his calls (see MOORLACH UPDATE — OC Register Coverage Look Back — September 16, 2019).

Here are two selected paragraphs:

In an annual report sent last week to 187 public agencies that invest in the county fund, Citron strives to refute that criticism, saying the “paper losses” that Moorlach pointed to will never be realized because the fund seldom sells an investment before it matures at full value.

Moorlach was not available for comment late Wednesday.

The last two LOOK BACKS can be found at MOORLACH UPDATE — SB 359 and Cuyahoga County and MOORLACH UPDATE — SB 359 and Group 10.

California power lines spark wildfires and prompt blackouts. Why not just bury them?

Janet Wilson, Palm Springs Desert Sun

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/11/bury-california-power-lines-wildfire-blackout-fix-unlikely-work/3946935002/

https://www.desertsun.com/story/news/environment/2019/10/11/cost-to-bury-california-fire-prone-power-lines-why-not/3937653002/

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Experts say the answer is simple: money.
  • It costs about $3 million per mile to convert underground electric distribution lines
  • It would take more than 1,000 years to bury all the lines at the current rate

Why can’t California’s fire-prone power lines be buried underground, out of harm’s way?

That was the question many were asking this week as hundreds of thousands of customers lost power in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas in preemptive shutoffs by Pacific Gas & Electric. Further south, another 200,000 customers of other utilities faced warnings that they too could lose power due to high winds.

Experts say the answer is simple: money.

“It’s very, very expensive,” said Severin Borenstein, a UC Berkeley professor of business administration and public policy who specializes in energy. Borenstein was speaking through the crackly static of a cellphone outside his darkened home in the San Francisco suburb of Orinda on Thursday evening. The Berkeley campus was shut down and his home had lost power, too, after PG&E instituted a mandatory “de-energization” across nearly 40 counties due to high fire threats.

It costs about $3 million per mile to convert underground electric distribution lines from overhead, while the cost to build a mile of new overhead line is less than a third of that, at approximately $800,000 per mile, according to a section on PG&E’s website called Facts About Undergrounding Power Lines.

California has 25,526 miles of higher voltage transmission lines, and 239,557 miles of distribution lines, two-thirds of which are overhead, according to CPUC. Less than 100 miles per year are transitioned underground, meaning it would take more than 1,000 years to underground all the lines at the current rate.

$15,000 for every PG&E customer?

PG&E, the state’s largest utility, maintains approximately 81,000 miles of overhead distribution lines and approximately 26,000 miles of underground distribution lines. It also has about 18,000 miles of larger transmission lines, the majority of which are overhead lines.

At a cost of $3 million per mile, undergrounding 81,000 miles of distribution lines would cost $243 billion. PG&E has 16 million customers; distributing that expense equally would amount to a bill of more than $15,000 per account.

“It’s very expensive,” said Constance Gordon, a public information officer with the California Public Utilities Commission. “The utilities don’t want to pay for it out of their pockets, so ratepayers would have to pitch in, and people don’t want to pay for that.”

PG&E is not flush with cash: The investor-owned utility filed for bankruptcy in January, facing $11 billion in liabilities related to wildfires. This week, the company’s shares tumbled after a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that the utility no longer had the sole right to shape the terms of its reorganization.

Background: California power outages aim to reduce risk of wildfires caused by dry and windy weather

Watch: Power cuts affect many across Northern California

Underground costs can vary depending on trenching and paving. If gas and telephone utilities share costs with electric companies, conversion costs can come down, but it all comes out of the customer’s pocket eventually.

A report prepared by the Edison Electric Institute, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind, An Updated Study on the Undergrounding of Overhead Power Lines,” found that while most new commercial and residential developments across the United States tuck electrical facilities underground, burying existing above-ground electric distribution systems can cost up to $5 million a mile in urban areas.

Environmental concerns would also be high if thousands of miles of trenches were dug through forests or brushland habitat, Borenstein noted. Opposition could also arise from residents in existing neighborhoods confronted with the prospect of heavy-duty earth-moving projects.

Neighborhoods can tax themselves to bury lines

Since 1967, the California Public Utilities Commission has had a rule requiring utilities to contribute funds to communities for utility conversion projects from overhead to underground infrastructure, paid for partially by ratepayers.

The CPUC has a longstanding policy that if a neighborhood wants underground power lines, it can have it done if residents pay for it themselves, with some required contributions from utilities. Sometimes developers and cities are willing to pitch in for certain areas, but the process is still labyrinthine.

That program does not prioritize lines in high wildfire hazard risk zones, but some residents in communities that experienced wildfires, including coastal Malibu and Rancho Palo Verde, have pushed for that policy to change to prioritize risky areas.

Sometimes the concerns are more centered on aesthetics than safety, and communities are willing to pay, or to have their local governments work to find funding. In the city of Palm Desert in the Coachella Valley, for example, residents’ demands to bury unsightly lines led the city council to approve a $600 million underground utility plan in October 2018. But that’s just the beginning of the process.

If residents want the utility lines moved underground, they have to initiate creating a special district to tax themselves to pay for the project. To create a special district, residents need to collect signatures, and residents within the district’s boundaries need to vote on the issue. In Palm Desert, the city hopes to help fund some of these projects, such as by paying for the portion of the move underground that is on public property.

Electric wires are increasingly placed underground in areas of new construction for aesthetic reasons, with developers picking up the cost. And in Paradise, where the devastating 2018 Camp Fire sparked by a power line flattened most of the town and killed 86 people, PG&E is preparing to lay underground lines.

Traffic: Saddleridge Fire shuts down multiple freeways, creating a traffic nightmare in Los Angeles and beyond

“I don’t know if I agree with it,” said Borenstein of that plan, who thought it could offer a false sense of security. “Though when you are starting from scratch, it is much cheaper if all the houses have burned.”

But Borenstein and others noted that problems can occur underground as well. Animals can chew buried lines or lightning can short out ground connections, just as animals can damage lines overhead, or a dry tree branch can drop. The state’s extremely varied landscapes are another challenge.

“In some places undergrounding works, and in some places it doesn’t,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “California’s topography is challenging. … I do know PG&E has taken a concerted effort, as well as all the utilities, to do undergrounding where possible.”

Governor signs more than 20 fire-related bills

The solutions for PG&E’s fire-prone wires are straightforward, but will take time after years of neglect, said a clearly irritated Gov. Gavin Newsom at a Thursday press conference. PG&E needs to be brought into the 21st century in terms of technology, and the utility’s equipment needs to be “hardened” against fire threats and maintained properly, he said.

“But to harden and upgrade 100,000 miles of line, come on, that’s not gonna happen in a week or two, or even a month or two, or a year or two,” Newsom said.

Earlier this month, Newsom signed into law over 20 wildfire-related bills.

One example: SB 584, introduced by Sen. John Moorlach, would require electrical corporations to invest funds for overhead to underground electrical infrastructure conversion projects by July. The projects would be partially funded by grants from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But the bill has languished on the floor.

Borenstein agreed that vegetation management and hardening transmission and distribution lines are better, more easily implemented alternatives than burying 100,000 miles of lines.

“That means mowing, cutting trees, perhaps replacing wooden poles with concrete poles, and all the rusted transmission towers,” he said. “They’re trying to do these things, but they have a huge backlog of work.”

Other possible measures include insulating exposed lines or installing sensors, including cameras or devices that can detect a spark or a short and even shut down a line automatically.

What about solar panels and batteries?

So if you can’t bury your power line outside your front door, what about going “off the grid” with batteries in case of power outages?

Borenstein said that for most people, it’s out of reach. A Tesla-produced Powerwall — a big battery that can store energy produced by solar power on a home rooftop, or electricity sucked from the conventional grid — starts at $6,000. There are additional expenses for installing a switch to “island” a building’s electric system, isolating it from the grid.

Oct. 11: Two dead near Los Angeles as Saddleridge fire forces 100,000 people to evacuate

One thing is for sure: With a warming climate increasing the frequency and ferocity of wildfires, blackouts could become a far more regular occurrence in California, joining New England with its snow-induced outages, or the Southeast or Midwest with hurricane and flood-related power losses.

“I think this climate change is a major factor,” Borenstein said. “Electric lines have been sparking and starting fires for years. But they’re much bigger now, with much more vegetation.”

More and more people moving into wildlands only compounds the problem, creating a flammable mix.

His personal solution? Lots of LED battery flashlights, and a large supply of ice to protect food supplies.

Contributing: Gabrielle Paluch and Gabrielle Canon. Follow Janet Wilson on Twitter: @janetwilson66

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