David Nasatir, 89, a retired Cal Sociology professor and researcher, who has lived on Summit Road in the Berkeley Hills since 1957, when it was dirt. He voted to support undergrounding in his neighborhood years ago but said he “almost abandoned any hope” the project would be completed in his lifetime. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

More than three decades ago, the city of Berkeley launched the process of undergrounding utility lines for a slice of homes bordered by Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Summit Road, next to Tilden Park. 

Meetings were held, neighbors polled, funding strategies hammered out.

Undergrounding Utility District No. 48. Click the image to expand. Courtesy: Councilmember Susan Wengraf

One of numerous neighborhood undergrounding projects in the city in various stages of completion based largely on funding, Undergrounding Utility District No. 48 was established in 1992. Then came years of working with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which approves and oversees undergrounding, to start moving dirt and burying wire.

This summer work on the Grizzly Peak project is scheduled to begin. The project, removing poles and overhead lines and stretching them in underground trenches, is expected to take two years.

“After waiting 32 years and being disappointed by many false starts, I think I can say with certainty that PGE is committed to getting UUD # 48 undergrounded and it is really going to happen!”  Councilmember Susan Wengraf wrote in a recent newsletter from her office.

Wengraf represents the area in undergrounding district 48, and has long worked to move the project forward.

The district includes about 186 households, including that of octogenarian David Nasatir who has lived on Summit Road since 1957, when it was dirt. He recalls voting to support undergrounding years ago. He’s still waiting. 

See a history of undergrounding district 48 compiled by Berkeley Citizens for Utility Undergrounding, an advocacy group

“I am now 89 years old and have almost abandoned any hope that the project will be started (much less completed) in my lifetime,” Nasatir said. 

Undergrounding advocates blame project delays on PG&E’s serious troubles of the past many years, including culpability for causing deadly wildfires, gas line explosions and bankruptcies.

Signing agreements with other telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast, who also bury their lines, also took longer than expected, officials from the utility said.

“PG&E has been dragging their feet on this project for three decades. As an agency, they have gone through many crises, and this was not a priority for them,” Wengraf said.

A 2016 city map showing areas of the city with undergrounded utilities. Underground district 48 is shown as “proposed.” Work on this district will start this summer, after more than 30 years of planning. Credit: City of Berkeley

But Berkeley was persistent, including city staff and residents, Wengraf said.

“I was extremely lucky in partnering with a team from inside PGE that was willing to figure out how to proceed and problem-solve on the project and move it forward to get it completed.”

Undergrounding utilities is expensive and complex

Tuesday’s destructive winds, which knocked down trees, power poles and power lines, sparking fires, showed just how vulnerable overhead utility wires are to mother nature. 

Most new housing developments routinely underground utilities. Older, established communities like Berkeley face enormous challenges in doing so.

Converting overground utilities to underground is a costly and complicated process, regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). 

In 1967, the CPUC adopted a regulatory process called Electric Rule 20, which provides three main pathways for local areas, cities and counties (unincorporated areas) to convert overhead power lines to underground. 

The cost of undergrounding in Berkeley is about $6 million per mile, on the higher end of the state scale.

At the time, a main impetus for Rule 20 was aesthetics. Since then, public safety is cited as a main reason communities are eager to bury electrical lines, a changing sentiment fueled by the jump in destructive wildfires, spurred on by climate change, and by real life images of ripped live wires igniting dry branches and roads blocked by downed power poles.

Under Rule 20, municipalities or private property owners select potential areas for undergrounding, working with their utility company to approve and conduct the job. 

Rule 20 options vary based on type of project, with different funding strategies. 

Most of Berkeley’s undergrounding, including district 48, is done under Rule 20 A, with eligibility based on “the public interest” under four possible scenarios: heavy traffic;  a heavy concentration of wires; a civic or recreational area with unusual scenic, cultural or historical significance; or along a major arterial roadway and connecting side streets.

A before-and-after diagram from a 2018 city study on undergrounding utility wires in Berkeley. Credit: City of Berkeley

Rule 20 A projects are paid for almost entirely by rate-payers statewide as part of their utility bill, to the tune of about $1 a month.

This money, housed by utility companies, is doled out annually to cities and counties in the form of work credits for construction. 

One work credit is equal to $1 dollar. 

The number of work credits municipalities receive is based on a formula using the number of utility meters in their community. 

After PG&E’s 2001 bankruptcy, Rule 20 A credit distribution decreased by 50%, greatly impacting the pace of projects, as it took communities much longer to fund work. Before PG&E starts work on Rule 20 A project, it must be fully funded.

Other Rule 20 options include Rule B, with costs primarily covered by a municipality or developer, and Rule C, for small groups of property owners, who pay for all of the  project. (A fourth category, Rule D, applies only to San Diego County.)

In its 2023 budget, Berkeley allocated $12 million for completing the district 48 undergrounding project, primarily from work credits. This includes funding for new streetlights, many solar-powered, collected from residents of the district as an assessment. 

Berkeley’s annual work credit allotment translates to about $540,000 annually, according to a 2020 city council report on undergrounding. To fund projects, the city saves up.  

As of June 30, 2019, the city had a little over $9 million in its undergrounding budget, most of which will pay for district 48. 

“The project is predominantly funded through Rule 20A credits, excluding staff time,” said Andrew Brozyna, deputy director of the city’s public works department. “To fund the streetlight installation portion of UUD #48 (District), an assessment was levied and collected between FY 1995 and FY1999. All streetlight installation costs beyond what was collected (plus interest accrued) will be covered through use of other City funds.”

Rule 20 A allows jurisdictions to count five years of future work credits in project budgets, essentially loans from the ratepayer undergrounding pool.

According to a 2020 city study by consultants Bellecci & Associates, the cost of undergrounding in Berkeley is about $6 million per mile. This is on the higher end of the state scale, which puts the cost at $1.85 million to $6.1 million, according to estimates from the CPUC. Costs vary based on terrain, development and other factors.

Ten underground districts have been established in Berkeley under CPUC Rule 20 to date, with several more in the planning stages. This includes district 48 and next-in-queue Vistamont Avenue or district 35 A. All but one are 20 A projects, funded by work credits.

Utility lines in areas of the city destroyed by the 1991 firestorm (the Tunnel Fire) were undergrounded when rebuilt.

And most major thoroughfares and streets are undergrounded, in standard practice, using various financing modes. Some of these are paid for with help from BART, UC Berkeley and CalTrans.

It’s not clear how Berkeley historically prioritized undergrounding projects outside of major roadways. 

In a 2004 report on the “history of undergrounding,” the Public Works Commission described the criteria for selection as: “First come/first served based upon organization and initiative of citizens in local area/district.”

The report also said, “Berkeley and Oakland were two cities who aggressively went after Rule 20A funds and formed a long queue of assessment districts in their areas. They convinced PG&E to bend the guidelines and use Rule 20A monies in residential neighborhoods where residents were more willing to pay for private connection costs ($2000+ per parcel). PG&E started to face their own problems (rapid demand caused by internet server farms & bankruptcy hearings) [and] they began to refuse to deviate from the original criteria established by the CPUC under Rule 20.” 

Berkeleyside has asked PG&E to comment, and hasn’t yet heard back. 

In 2009, the city council paused forming new undergrounding districts, with its work credits budgeted well into the future, to develop new policy, with safety emerging as a community priority.

Future of state rules around undergrounding are in flux

A section of Grizzly Peak Boulevard in the Berkeley Hills that’s set to have its utility lines undergrounded. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Undergrounding district 48 may carry more distinction than simply getting off – or under – the ground. It could be the last of its breed.

Just as PG&E is sharpening backhoes and shovels to — at last — start undergrounding district 48, officials are adjusting to recent, significant CPUC changes to Rule 20 A.

The distribution of work credits, the currency of Rule 20 A, was at least temporarily halted by the CPUC at the end of 2022, a move that came after years of audits, reviews and hearings.  

This won’t affect district 48, which was fully funded before the deadline, PG&E assured the city.

But it could affect future undergrounding in Berkeley, including projects in the pipeline such as the city’s undergrounding district 35, along Wildcat Canyon Road and Vistamont Avenue.

At a time of heightened interest in undergrounding across California, largely for public safety but also for beautification, the state has been taking a close, hard look at Rule 20, to fix problems and bring the rule into more modern times.

The overhaul, in the works for years with phased-in changes, spotlights the Rule 20 A work credit program as problematic. This underlies the CPUC decision to call off work credit distribution as it hammers out solutions.

The overhaul focuses on several concerns raised by cities, counties, utility advocacy groups and other stakeholders about Rule 20’s fairness, management and relevance, according to CPUC documents.

Among the concerns are that allocating 20 A “public good” work credits based on aesthetics is outdated, especially as disaster safety worries rise; that large numbers of work credits translating to millions of dollars aren’t being used; and that there’s been inconsistent and lax program oversight. 

The unregulated trading of work credits among municipalities was also tagged for reform.

The CPUC also flagged inequity in the distribution of work credits, as less populated rural areas with fewer utility meters (including tribal lands) get fewer work credits, making it near-impossible to afford undergrounding. 

“In February 2019, the Commission adopted an Environmental and Social Justice (ESJ) Action Plan. The ESJ Action Plan includes nine goals, including the goal of consistently integrating equity and access considerations throughout Commission proceedings and other efforts,” said a CPUC report on changing Rule 20 A.

“A handful of the 503 communities that pay into the [Rule 20 A work credit] program have completed projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars funded by ratepayer contributions. On the other hand, 82 eligible communities have not completed a single project since 2005.”

Like multiyear courtroom proceedings, CPUC rulemaking and rule changes involve stakeholders statewide, utility companies, cities and counties and advocacy groups. After taking input in numerous public sessions and written correspondence, CPUC staff make recommendations which are then ruled on by administrative judges for final regulations.  

Among the information considered by the CPUC for Rule 20 changes was its 2019 audit of PG&E’s Rule 20 A program.

The audit identified what the CPUC called several “major issues” with PG&E’s work credit program. This included using undergrounding money on other types of projects, with a lack of paperwork; project costs consistently higher than estimates, causing delays; and project costs higher per mile than industry standards. 

PG&E disagreed with many of the audit’s conclusions. But it implemented some of the recommendations on its own accord.

Some of PG&E’s work credit red flags matched practices of other major state utilities, including having millions of dollars in unused undergrounding funds. The CPUC estimated in 2021, that “un-committed Rule 20A work credits across all electric utility service territories is over $1.56 billion.”

These contributed to the basis for the Rule 20 reform.

Berkeley prioritizes public safety, and waits for what’s next

Powerlines cross the hills along Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

As the CPUC continues to examine Rule 20, called Phase 2, the commission will consider whether to add wildfire risk as a qualifier for Rule 20 A work credits, and whether work credits should prioritize projects in disadvantaged communities – among other things. Decisions could come later this year.

Berkeley, meanwhile, hopes the CPUC won’t do away with work credits entirely, which is under consideration.

This stance is shared by many other cities, who are pushing the CPUC to expand qualifying criteria to wildfire hazard.

“Berkeley, as a party to the proceedings, is strongly advocating to the CPUC for the continuation of the Rule 20A work credits,” said Andrew Brozyna, an engineer in the city’s Public Works Department. 

Long-interested in undergrounding, the city council asked the Public Works, Disaster & Fire Safety and Transportation commissions in 2014 for a comprehensive study on undergrounding.

The study, essentially a cost-benefit analysis, focused on major roadways as essential for emergency access, as evacuation routes, and for the movement of emergency vehicles. 

Public safety, reliability, aesthetics, wildfire risk, and maintenance costs were identified as primary reasons the city should underground.

It was released in three phases, updated along the way.

The report makes clear the serious challenge of paying for undergrounding, cost-prohibitive for the city budget, even with Rule 20 A work credits. It suggests a variety of undergrounding funding strategies, including tax increases, franchise fees, and bonds; and notes that Rule 20 is under review by the CPUC, and could change. 

In the storms of recent weeks, sparks have flown as trees fell on power lines. 

These types of scares — there’s been no serious fire damage during the storms, and major fire in soppy conditions is unlikely — is a kind of “proof in the pudding” for the city staff and commission members working on the undergrounding study.

Major streets examined for undergrounding are: Alcatraz/Claremont avenues, Ashby Avenue/Tunnel Road, Cedar Street, Gilman Avenue and Hopkins Street; Marin Avenue, Grizzly Peak Boulevard, and Spruce Street, Oxford Street, and Rose Streets.

The third phase of the study built on this, narrowing down key evacuation routes to underground.

Upper Dwight Way is recommended as the highest priority evacuation route. This is followed by lower Dwight, then sections of Marin Avenue, Grizzly Peak Boulevard (north of district 48) and Ashby Avenue. In all, 15 evacuation routes are recommended for undergrounding, over a 15-year period. 

The long-term recommended goal is to underground the entire city by 2070.

Other developments loom over the city’s undergrounding hopes, introducing more unknowns.

This includes PG&E’s 2021 widely announced plan to underground 10,000 miles of its lines statewide, as part of its wildfire prevention work. 

According to its website, the utility has completed 180 miles of undergrounding to date, with another 350 planned for this year. 

Berkeley’s undergrounding district 48 is included in PG&E’s mile-count for 2023, said Matt Nauman, PG&E spokesperson.

“When Rule 20A projects happen in areas at high risk of wildfire, we include them in our goal to underground 10,000 miles of distribution powerlines,” he said. “We are focusing our 10,000-Mile Undergrounding Program in areas where we can have the greatest impact on reducing wildfire and wildfire safety-related outages.”

The utility has also embarked on major system retrofitting — or hardening — against wildfire

Add to this the as-yet-unknown impact of Senate Bill 884, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year. The law creates an expedited process for large utilities like PG&E to underground in high fire hazard zones, with faster permitting. 

The law, which requires independent monitoring and regular reporting to the CPUC, calls on utilities in the fast-track program to take steps to reduce rate-payers’ costs, such as applying for federal and state grants.

But critics of the law, including The Utility Reform Network, say ratepayers will end up shouldering the brunt of the costs, and worry that higher bills to pay for undergrounding will undermine the cost-saving motivation of going solar.

Back in Berkeley’s undergrounding district 48, Nasatir worries about wildfire in his neighborhood.

“This particularly wet winter promises abundant fuel for the coming fire season and narrow, dead-end Summit Road, with a sharp turn in the middle, diminishes the prospect of a hasty and successful escape should such an activity be necessary,” he said. “Downed power lines would make it impossible.”

David Nasatir in the Summit Road home he’s lived in for more than six decades. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...