October 12, 2021 — By now, everyone in the region has noticed clear-cuts around PG&E wires, from Deerwood to Hopland to Humboldt and Sonoma Counties.
PG&E’s ill-maintained equipment causes fires that kill people and animals, and burn down towns and rapidly dwindling habitat. In response, the utility is removing the vegetation that could catch fire if it comes in contact with the lines.
The Sierra Club’s Wildfire Mitigation Task Force wrote a cost benefit analysis of how effective — and cost effective — the program is. Here’s the short version: “It’s really expensive. And it doesn’t work,” according to Nancy Macy, the task force chair. “How can it work? You can’t cut down every tree that may or may not, sometime in the future, have a problem.”
The research team analyzed documents from PG&E and other utilities in California, and found that PG&E’s bare copper wires meet vegetation with disastrous results almost twice as often as other utilities. But in addition to undergrounding lines, the other companies are replacing bare copper distribution wires with triple insulated steel core cables and installing computerized circuit breakers for protection from broken wires.
Southern California Edison has estimated that steel-core triple insulation for its lines costs $428k per mile. PG&E estimated that its enhanced vegetation management program of clear-cutting under the lines would cost $405k per mile. But by the end of August 2020, the program costs came out to $416 million. That’s almost half a million dollars per mile for a program that doesn’t even address the main causes of wildfire. The analysis “shows a meager 5% reduction in projected ignitions by PG&E unders its vegetation focused plan. Worth noting, PG&E will be spending over $4 billion in the period between 2020 and 2022, for vegetation management alone.”
“I don’t think we were really surprised,” Macy reflected. “It came out that if you add up the costs of enhanced vegetation management, which is around $2 billion a year, it costs a whole lot more to cut down the trees and pay the contractors and deal with the slash and all of that, than it does to rebuild the infrastructure.
PG&E has already paid two and half times as much as it paid in 2020, when it far exceeded its budget. “So we do not know (how much it will cost),” Macy concluded. “And that’s the scary thing.”