Barrio Logan NASSCO
Barrio Logan NASSCO

Everything you thought you knew about when and where the city of San Diego will bury power lines might be changing.

The city’s 2022 deal with its power grid builder, San Diego Gas & Electric, says areas with high fire risk and poverty should get power lines buried first. That’s not what’s been happening, so the City Council will be tasked with giving its undergrounding program another makeover.  

Last week I reported that, in the past, San Diego undergrounded richer areas of town before poorer ones. That’s because the city’s policy was to favor “tourism” and high-density areas first. Later, in 2003, the city said projects should be split equally among City Council districts. Now San Diego says areas of town at high risk of wildfire and underserved communities should have dibs.  

That’s a big swing from equality toward equity. And it may mean the city will do another undergrounding order reshuffling.

From start to finish, the process of burying a power line in the city takes around seven years. First the city collects a fee charged on SDG&E customers’ bills – 5.78 percent on power used. The money goes into a fund to pay for undergrounding projects, which starts when the City Council selects the projects that then go into environmental review, resident notification, design and finally – pant, pant – construction. Part of the reason it takes so long is the city includes other work it wants done if SDG&E is tearing up the street anyway. That could include installing new streetlights or upgrading curbs to American Disabilities Act standards.

In 2002, when the city updated its contract with SDG&E, the city had planned every powerline burial for the next 50 years or so. Residents got letters in the mail from their councilmember, proudly informing property owners that the “visual litter” of overhead utility wires and poles would disappear. It informed them that in seven years or so, their neighborhood’s views would be cleaned of these eyesores. Some are still waiting.

The wait times grew longer when in 2020, the city pause undergrounding because of disputes with SDG&E over costs.  

In 2018, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration passed a new undergrounding master plan. It said the city should prioritize power line burial where it created the “greatest public benefits.” Now it’s fire and poverty.

This all crystalized during a recent interview with Chelsea Klaseus, deputy director of the city’s transportation department.

“As I look back at the program, I can see the confusion and frustration over the expectation,” said Klaseus, who joined the department in 2022. “Almost immediately that ended up changing because of the new franchise (contract), and the prioritization changed. Whatever we do next, we want to be more considerate of the future.”  

What I’m gathering is the city is going to update its undergrounding master plan, again, to reflect these new-new priorities. And the map that’s supposed to give us a sense where undergrounding is happening next, will be changing also.

Bottom line, if you’re waiting for your powerline to go away, don’t hold your breath.

In Other News: 

  • Mexicans elected their first female president on Sunday, though she is from the same party of her longtime political ally and former president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Claudia Sheinbaum is a climate scientist and Mexico City’s former mayor. Some local Latin American energy experts say she’ll be faced with the same crippled energy economy of her predecessor. (Union-Tribune Opinion) 
  • Work began on the first aqueduct built to deliver water to San Diego and connect it to major sources like the Colorado River. (Coast News) 
  • Katie Hyson at KPBS wrote this beautiful story about a local man originally from Zimbabwe who grows produce for the food bank, part of a new program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.   
  • In more farming news, Philip Salata writes that a former leader at a non-profit suing a community farm it manages testified her organization’s president unfairly targeted Black refugee farmers. (inewsource) 

Join the Conversation

8 Comments

  1. Playing hopscotch with a construction project, over equity, is financially stupid and is not efficient. It's all to get done in the end. Stop the games and get to work.

  2. Undergrounding — I've watched the “progress” for decades on our street. My joke is that every 10 years we got 5 years closer - starting over 20 plus years ago. I have said that the race was on “will I be undergrounded before the power lines.” Given that I live in Hillcrest, and I'm now 78, looks like I'll win since it's unlikely that we will be in the new focus areas. So, I guess I win - I'll die looking up at the 1910/1920s timber on Robinson Avenue. But, who knows, maybe this will be a “focus” of the new “Focused Hillcrest” plan.

  3. Chelsea Klaseus, deputy director of the city’s transportation department said, “As I look back at the program, I can see the confusion and frustration over the expectation. Whatever we do next, we want to be more considerate of the future.”
    dear Ms. Klaseus, “the future” doesn't care if we're considerate it or not; like Ol' Man River, it just rolls along.

  4. MacKenzie, please list an instance where “underserved” communities were adversely affected because power lines weren't undergrounded. Also, where are the fire prone areas within the city limits that have burned because power lines were not undergrounded? Perhaps the article should focus on the waste of excessive rate payer dollars just so things look prettier.

  5. Bottom line, if you’re waiting for your powerline to go away, don’t hold your breath.

    BLUF - Many of us will be underground before the utility lines.

  6. Can someone tell Sean Elo that when I moved into his district in 2005 I received a notice that undergrounding was to begin that year. It still hasn't started. I don't live there anymore, but I still own that home and that neighborhood's infrastructure is crumbling, with broken roads, sidewalks and dirt alleys. Instead of being so concerned about equity, maybe he should focus on bringing home the bacon?

  7. Undergrounding isn't free. Property owners have to pay to upgrade their electrical service from overhead to underground. It could be a heavy financial burden. If the overhead service is in the alley property owners will have to pay to move their electrical service to the street side of the property. Undergrounding is a big disruption to the neighborhood and it goes on for a long time. Be careful about what you wish for. There are people in wealthy neighborhoods who fought hard to prevent undergrounding . I prefer overhead service.

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