Companies give up on underground wires

The Associated Press
Monday February 19, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – The state’s two largest investor-owned utilities have quietly abandoned a 32-year project to bury power lines around the state in their push to conserve cash. 

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co. have billed customers about $1.6 billion since 1968 to underground the electricity wires, intended to both improve views and to cut back on fire danger when high winds slap the lines together and produce sparks that have been linked to fires in wooded urban areas such as the Oakland hills. 

But the utilities say they can no longer afford to pay for the work in advance, as required by state law. PG&E said it will re-evaluate the situation in six months; SoCal Edison does not yet have a timetable; and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. also is considering halting the program. 

The work stall leaves more than 30 communities throughout the state with projects stopped midstream or indefinitely postponed, the San Jose Mercury News Reported. 

“It would be a shame if, as part of the energy crisis, California permanently loses programs which have as their main aim beautification of the built environment,” said Kevin Starr, state librarian and noted historian. “But it’s a very understandable byproduct of the crisis. When you have the present dysfunction, more than electricity is going to be at risk.” 

Throughout the state, only about 3,000 of the 170,000 miles of overhead lines have been converted. The project moves slowly because burying the lines costs $1 million per mile, with the cost spread over the entire ratepayer base. 

The utilities told state power regulators of their decision last month. Though the Public Utilities Commission has yet to approve the decision, it is not expected to force the utilities to resume undergrounding as the power crisis rolls onward. 

“This is the only responsible thing to do at this time,” said Staci Homrig, a spokeswoman for PG&E. “We intend to resume the projects as soon as we are financially able.”