California’s Huge Budget Surplus Provides Once in Lifetime Opportunity to Bury Fire-Causing Power Lines
By Nancy Price
Despite predictions of an even worse year for wildfires and power shutdowns than 2020, not one dollar of California’s immense $76 billion budget surplus is being allocated to actually prevent wildfires which is to bury overhead power lines.
Since 2017, four of the six most destructive fires have been sparked by overhead power lines. Burying just a tiny fraction of these lines that pose the highest risk of fires is by far the most important preventive measure to protect us from catastrophic fires and the terrible cost we pay with our lives, health, economy and environment.
Preventing fires mean we can protect our forests that are much need carbon sinks so we can realize our state’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.
Burying overhead wires would also eliminate the expanding number of massive power shutdowns that liability-averse utility companies order because of the fire risks. These shutdowns impacted 2.5 million Californians last year, especially the elderly and infirm, whose lives sometimes depend upon medical machinery requiring steady electricity.
The Senate Wildfire Working Group recently announced a package of new bills to legislatively complement the necessary $2 billion that Governor Newsom plans to spend on CAL FIRE to prepare for, remediate and fight wildfires after they start.
Yet none of this funding will go toward burying power lines or slowing the ever more pervasive power shutdowns. That’s why the Sonoma Independent and The Davis Community Vision Alliance formed the grassroots Bury Fire-Causing Power Lines Now! Campaign. Please sign our Change.org petition (link here), already signed by 1,200 and help us get to our 2,000 goal.
Also join us in calling the Senate Natural Resources Committee Chair Henry Stern (916-651-4027) to ask him to introduce our emergency trailer bill allocation of $1.5 billion to bury the 500 riskiest miles of overhead power lines. A detailed Executive Summary of the bill can be read at the SonomaIndependent.org
The bill creates an urgently needed new financing structure to provide 2 to 1 matching funds to California utility companies to bury the riskiest overhead lines, with these funds overseen and regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, prioritized by CAL FIRE based on past wildfires.
California currently has a regulatory system which disincentivizes utility companies, which own the lines, from burying them. The Public Utilities Regulatory Commission requires utilities to use the least expensive method of conveying power, without consideration of the crippling costs of the wildfires. Because it costs $800,000 to use overhead lines and about $3 million to bury them, utilities have little choice but to keep them overhead. And the state provides no reimbursement to bury existing high risk lines.
According to PG&E, the counties of Butte, Calaveras, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Sonoma and Yuba, which were home to both the Camp and the Tubbs fires (the two most destructive in state history) contain a total of only 532 overhead power lines. This proposed $1.5 billion appropriation (just 2% of the surplus) would provide enough funding to bury a total of 500 miles of the highest risk overhead lines in these areas as well as undergrounding the highest risk lines around Malibu and Santa Barbara, where windy hills and dry grass create similar fire-sparking hazards.
Our state legislators should use just 2% of our budget surplus to protect Californians by burying the riskiest overhead power lines before they cause the next devastating fire.
There is significant public and media attention concerning the ONLY bill to fund fire prevention and end power shutdowns and protect our forests.
Nancy Price is a member of Davis Community Vision Alliance