Environment Report: Some San Diegans Might Be Buried Before Power Lines Are

Science/Environment

Environment Report: Some San Diegans Might Be Buried Before Power Lines Are

San Diego resolves one of its undergrounding disputes, a supervisor testified in Congress over offshore drilling and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

View of Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. / Photo by MacKenzie Elmer

As I sat munching a Sicilian pizza along Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard over the weekend, I noticed the street looked a little … naked. Each streetlight stood independently and unstrung; traffic lights flashed as if controlled by some phantom.

There were no power lines in sight.

Like San Diego, Pasadena started burying its power lines underground in the 1960s. Pasadena taxes its citizens for the program, which is intended to help beautify the city, because back in the Beach Boys days Californians thought power lines were unsightly.

San Diego also charges its citizens a little extra to bury power lines and we pay more to do it faster than surrounding cities. (Check your energy bill for the “City of San Diego Franchise Fee Differential.” I paid about $1.15 on the last bill toward undergrounding.)

Back in 2012, city officials told residents it’d take another 54 years to finish burying all the power lines. (The city didn’t respond to my request for an updated finish line in time for this newsletter.) Varoojan Avedian, engineering manager at Pasadena’s city-run water and power department, told me they’ve buried about two-thirds of the power lines. But it’d take another 400 years to bury all of them based on how much they collect from residents (about $5 million per year) and because some of those power lines are on low-priority private property.

Point is, for many cities, this process can take generations because it’s hella expensive. Pasadena says it costs about $10 to $12 million per mile. It often involves tearing up the street, laying utility lines in the earth, and then resurfacing the street plus the task of coordinating it all.

Why does this matter to you? You pay to bury these power lines so it should matter how much it costs. And it seems San Diego isn’t totally certain what it’ll cost.

Over the years, this undergrounding practice frayed the city of San Diego’s relationship with its private energy provider, San Diego Gas and Electric.

The City Council will decide Tuesday whether it wants to ink a new 20-year contract with SDG&E despite the fact it’s still actively suing the company over an undergrounding dispute.

And the city attorney alleged last year that SDG&E was “overcharging” for burying powerlines. San Diego refused to pay charges billed by the company for a period of time because it said the company wasn’t providing enough information to back up the charges.

At least twice, SDG&E told the city via a letter to state regulators that it’d stop collecting that extra money from San Diegans for the undergrounding program because, if it didn’t have the franchise fee contract in hand, it didn’t have the legal authority to do so.

By March 1, the two parties apparently resolved the overcharging allegations. San Diego said SDG&E charged an extra $2 million that didn’t relate directly to the actual burying of power lines, according to a letter from Alia Khouri, San Diego deputy chief operating officer, to Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president of state government and external affairs. (Disclosure: Mitchell is a member of VOSD’s board of directors.)

“The city has gained a better of understanding of how SDG&E calculates the cost per mile of undergrounding work,” Khouri said.

(Neither SDG&E nor the city of San Diego responded to my requests to talk about the undergrounding overcharging resolution.)

Then, San Diego agreed to pay back about $52 million worth of work. So I guess that solves the dispute.

Thing is, according to the proposed franchise fee contract the City Council might approve Tuesday, the terms of the city’s future relationship with SDG&E on the expensive and arduous task of burying power lines won’t be worked out until after the company gets the contract.

City Attorney Mara Elliott made note of that in a lengthy memo released Thursday.

“The city is giving up its right to unilaterally make decisions that impact its ability to manage its own undergrounding projects,” Elliott wrote.

So while the issues that stemmed from January are apparently resolved, it’s up to the city to ensure it has a clear understanding what it’s paying for going forward.

Pasadena doesn’t have to worry about that. The city manages the whole program on its own.

“It’s easier because we have our water department within the same city umbrella,” Avedian said. “We can talk to our public works department directly” to coordinate the complexity of undergrounding work.

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