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Burying power lines could help prevent California wildfires. Who should pay for it?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

California's biggest utility wants to bury thousands of miles of power lines to prevent them from touching off wildfires. That's after Pacific Gas and Electric's equipment sparked several California wildfires, including the Camp Fire that killed at least 85 people in the community of Paradise. Thing is, though, state regulators say that will send rates through the roof for the company's customers. From member station KQED, here's Kevin Stark.

KEVIN STARK, BYLINE: Dry winds, power lines zigzagging through tree branches up Grizzly Peak Boulevard in the Berkeley Hills, it's not hard to see how a wildfire could take off.

SUSAN WENGRAF: Very high-hazard fire zone, the same level of hazard as Paradise.

STARK: Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf pushed for 30 years to get PG&E to bury these lines, which the company says all but ensures they won't start a fire.

WENGRAF: It's more important than ever to get these utilities underground.

STARK: The project in Berkeley Hills broke ground earlier this year and is tiny compared to the 2,000 miles of power lines PG&E wants to bury through 2026. That's part of a plan that would cost about $6 billion. Costs would be pushed onto customers.

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MICHAEL MURRAY: It's PG&E's responsibility to improve wildfire safety without placing an even heavier financial burden on its customers.

STARK: At a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on the proposal last month, consumer groups pushed back. Michael Murray is with the AARP.

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MURRAY: We are deeply concerned that double-digit rate increases will affect the financial security of older adults and their families.

STARK: State regulators chafed at the cost, too. PG&E power lines have touched off the state's biggest megafires in recent years - not just the Camp Fire, but also the Dixie Fire, which burned a million acres. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019, facing billions in wildfire damages. On top of that, Commissioner John Reynolds said PG&E has struggled to bury even small stretches of power lines in the past.

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JOHN REYNOLDS: PG&E has never delivered the scale of undergrounding that you've proposed here. I have concerns that a PG&E failure to meet the plans as you've proposed them will result in customers paying for work that doesn't get done.

STARK: The utility responded by saying they have more than doubled their pace over the last few years. PG&E executive Carla Peterman.

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CARLA PETERMAN: We are tracking every day our progress, understanding where the bottlenecks are. So we are approaching this work differently, and that is a part of our strategy.

STARK: Instead of burying thousands of miles of power lines underground, regulators have proposed that the utility insulate most of the lines with a protective cover. It's cheaper and faster to complete. But covered lines are riskier, could break and touch off a fire, which the company told regulators.

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PETERMAN: We cannot delay important safety investments made for our customers.

STARK: Regulators are set to vote on PG&E's proposal later this month, and that will decide how many miles of lines they can bury over the next few years. But the utility wants to do five times more undergrounding over the next decade. Utilities all over the country face similar challenges as climate change amplifies wildfire risk.

SEVERIN BORENSTEIN: I think there's a very valid question of what to do and whether doing this primarily through undergrounding lines is the right policy.

STARK: UC Berkeley's energy economist, Severin Borenstein, says no matter what utilities choose to do, the bigger question is who should bear the costs - company shareholders, customers or the state?

BORENSTEIN: The real question is, does society bear them through raising utility rates, or does society bear them through paying for them through the state budget?

STARK: Borenstein says California pays for seawalls and other climate adaptation and could pay for this work, too.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Stark on Grizzly Peak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kevin Stark