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By Supervisor Lisa Bartlett
Undergrounding of utility power lines has been a hot topic for quite some time and is frequently at the forefront of discussions when it comes to assessing the cause of wildfires.
Recently, investigators determined the cause of the Emerald Fire in Laguna Beach to be “overhead powerlines.” According to the Orange County Fire Authority, “the Emerald Fire’s most probable heat source was sparks from electrical arcing.” This fire burned 154 acres and forced the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes.
While the cause of the more recent Coastal Fire in Laguna Niguel—which destroyed 20 homes, severely damaged 11 others and caused millions of dollars in property damage—remains under investigation, Southern California Edison issued a statement that circuit activity was detected in the area near the time the Coastal fire started.
In 1967, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) adopted “Rule 20,” which defines policies and procedures for electric utilities to convert overhead power lines and other equipment to underground facilities.
In 2001, the CPUC issued a ruling, noting that with very few exceptions, the public favored undergrounding for “safety, reliability, and property value increases,” in addition to aesthetic benefits. The Rule 20 Program consists of Rule 20A, 20B, 20C and 20D.
Rule 20A projects are 100% ratepayer-funded and enable utility companies to allocate Rule 20A work credits to local communities for utility underground conversion projects. Cities and/or counties put forth these projects that customers pay for through their electric utility bill. Work credit allocations are established by the utility companies and a community may “borrow” up to five years of future work credits to fund an undergrounding project.
A February 2020 staff proposal discussed by the CPUC’s Energy Division for Rule 20 Reform and Enhancements identified several significant challenges with the existing Rule 20 program, including inequitable usage of ratepayer funds, outdated program eligibility criteria, flawed work credits system, and high project costs and project delays.
The February proposal also estimated that at least $489 million in unused and uncommitted Rule 20A work credits remain outstanding among communities served by electric utility companies.
Upon further review, the Commission’s Energy Division “determined that the value of unused and uncommitted Rule 20A work credits across all electric utility service territories is over $1.56 billion as of January 2021.”
The CPUC’s “Phase 1 Decision Revising Electric Rule 20 and Enhancing Program Oversight” noted that only a handful of the 503 communities paying into the program have completed ratepayer-funded projects, while 82 eligible communities have not completed a single project since 2005.
Considering the myriad problems with Rule 20A and the work credit system, the CPUC decided in June 2021 to discontinue approval of new work credits for allocation after December 31, 2022, and effective immediately, the unregulated practice of trading of Rule 20A work credits is banned, with one or two exceptions.
For more than 50 years, the Rule 20A program has funded conversion of less than 1% (0.017% to be exact) of overhead electrical facilities. Why? Utility companies have been allowed to collect millions in taxpayer dollars for years with very little progress to show for it.
With $1.56 billion in unused and uncommitted Rule 20A work credits, why were utilities and communities allowed to accumulate such credits without little to no oversight? How were utility companies allowed to engage in an unsanctioned secondary work credit marketplace where some communities could sell, trade or donate their unused work credits to other communities?
How much longer do we have to wait and how much more devastation, death and destruction do taxpayers have to endure before serious action is taken to underground powerlines?
To mitigate the risk of sparking wildfires, some utilities have opted to turn off power during certain weather conditions. While this may sound like a good idea, it would be disastrous for the health, safety and economic well-being of our communities.
The time for action is long overdue, and it is imperative that a viable solution be found sooner rather than later to avoid any further suffering and hardship by Orange County taxpayers.
Lisa Bartlett sits on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, representing the Fifth District. She was reelected in 2018.