Burying the lines

Photo by Andre Byik

PG&E has begun trenching up the Skyway—part of the company’s long-term plan to underground 199 miles of local infrastructure.

Since PG&E announced in May it would bury its electric distribution power lines and infrastructure in Paradise and parts of lower Magalia, work has begun in earnest, and the utility says it is on track to complete 23 miles of construction by the end of this year.

In all, PG&E’s underground electric project will cover 199 miles in the town of Paradise—a move that could keep roads clear of power poles and lines in case of future evacuations, according to spokesman Paul Moreno. The project originally was expected to take about five years, but Moreno did not commit to that projected timeline in a recent interview with the CN&R, saying construction could be affected by other infrastructure projects the town is pursuing.

He said the company is working with the town so as not to conflict with planned engineering for future road and/or sewer projects. Temporary overhead lines will serve customers during construction.

The cost is estimated in the millions of dollars, Moreno said, though he could not provide a more specific estimate. There could be some overlapping work in the form of “joint trenching” for gas and electric lines. (Moreno said PG&E is replacing 74 miles of gas lines in Paradise.) The cost of converting overhead electric lines to underground is estimated at $3 million per mile, according to PG&E’s website (go to tinyurl.com/PGEunderground).

The utility has said the project will not come at an additional cost to the town or customers.

Putting distribution lines underground could help prevent fires sparked by trees falling into overhead power lines, Moreno said. This type of system also could improve egress in cases of emergency.

The underground system, however, may not spare the town from future planned power shut-offs by the utility, the spokesman said. It could be the case that a future power shut-off would include high-voltage transmission lines—like the one that sparked the Camp Fire—that ultimately feed power into Paradise. Bill Johnson, CEO of PG&E Corp., told the California Public Utilities Commission last month that intentional power shut-offs could continue over the next 10 years while the utility improves its electric system.

So far, Moreno said, underground work in Paradise and Magalia has been completed or slated for construction on Cliff, Erika, Ishi and Sunset drives, Almond Street and around Merrill Road.

PG&E also installed underground power lines along the Skyway from Chico to the former Tuscan Ridge Golf Club, which has been used most recently as a base camp for fire recovery workers. Another project is underway to extend the underground system eastward into Paradise.