Undergrounding all utilities in SF is nearly impossible, according to officials: Here's why

Lyanne Melendez Image
Friday, February 2, 2024
Here's why undergrounding SF utilities is nearly impossible
San Francisco has put roughly half of its utility lines underground in past decades. But now, PG&E says undergrounding the rest is nearly impossible.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Undergrounding overhead utilities has a long history in California that dates back to 1967. In fact, the city of San Francisco has put roughly half of its utility lines underground. But today, PG&E says there is no money left to underground the rest of San Francisco, much to the disappointment of homeowners.

San Francisco has many scenic views, but not all views are created equal.

Ask Claudia Anderson, who wakes up every morning to the sight of a PG&E transformer located just outside her bedroom.

"My transformer blew out once. We've had transformers at the top of the block blow out, and so there is a hazard of having them. Besides being unsightly, it is a hazard," Anderson said.

"I admit, it's one of my pet peeves, is looking down one of these streets and seeing all these wires everywhere," said Tony Socha, a Noe Valley resident.

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In 1967, there was strong demand for undergrounding.

In fact, it was encouraged and promoted by the California Public Utilities Commission, simply for aesthetic reasons.

But as San Francisco residents know, overhead power lines can be unsafe during big storms and earthquakes.

The city has buried about half of its utility lines. What about the remaining 470 miles of overhead lines that still need to be undergrounded?

"There were constant funds set aside by PG&E for undergrounding in San Francisco and other areas. And that money is gone now, even though they are raising rates through the roof," said San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

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For years, PG&E customers have paid into a program that's supposed to bury all those lines.

The funding rule for these projects was established by the CPUC, which said the upfront undergrounding cost for any project is funded by the utility agency and paid back by the ratepayers.

In the late 90s, Anderson had the chance to have the power lines on her street placed underground as long as neighbors agreed to pay for digging up the street.

"We were approached by the planners of the light rail who said, 'Hey this is your opportunity if you want to get things undergrounded.' We said, 'That's great.' But then they said, 'Well, it has to be unanimous on your block and everyone has to chip in several thousand dollars," Anderson said.

But not everyone was willing or able to pay, and the project went away.

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"We missed, probably, the one and only opportunity," Anderson said.

Here's why: PG&E is now telling us in a statement, "Our 10,000-mile undergrounding program targets circuits in areas with the highest wildfire risk, characterized as elevated or extreme risk -- tiers 2 and 3. There are no locations with the city and county of San Francisco in Tier 2 or Tier 3 areas."

"San Francisco is not as volatile as some of these areas that have burned recently," said Mark Toney from The Utility Reform Network, commonly known as TURN.

"We can beg and we can grovel, we can plea, but we cannot force them to do it. They are a utility under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission. This is PG&E's world, and we just live in it," Peskin said.

But the city is also to blame for mismanaging the last undergrounding project, which took 10 years.

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ABC7 obtained the independent Master Workplan Study on the utility undergrounding program, which came out in 2020.

That study clearly states that "a lack of proper planning, overruns and schedule delays resulted in cost overruns."

In other words, San Francisco spent all of its undergrounding funds and more.

The study also found that "There was never an understanding of who was leading the project, PG&E or the City and County of San Francisco."

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For San Francisco residents, this means the funding source will not be available until the money is paid back. It also means San Franciscans continue to pay off that debt with no new projects in sight.

The study concluded that "the need to find alternative funding sources is imperative in moving forward with a citywide utilities undergrounding program in San Francisco."

"The big upside to having things underground, besides the aesthetics, is public safety, so we'll see what people have to say after the next big earthquake," said Ed Baum, a San Francisco resident.

According to the report, if the money were there, it would cost between $50 and $100 million to underground the rest of San Francisco and would take about 50 years to complete the project.

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