Colorado Legislation Promotes Undergrounding and Equitable Access to Resilient Energy
May 9, 2024
The Colorado statehouse in Denver | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, May 6, 2024, SB24-218, “Modernize Energy Distribution Systems,” passed both Colorado’s Senate and House. This bill, co-sponsored by Senator Chris Hansen (D), Senator Steve Fenberg (D), Representative Monica Duran (D), and Representative Kyle Brown (D), aims to increase the reliability and resiliency of Investor-Owned Utilities in Colorado while at the same time addressing socioeconomic discrepancies in the energy industry.

The bill requires that 1% of an area’s gross electric revenues from the prior year be allocated to filing undergrounding plans through the state’s public utility commission. With increased droughts and temperatures, Colorado is experiencing an unprecedented risk of wildfire. Given the well-documented role overhead wires play in severe wildfires (such as 2018 Camp wildfires, the 2023 Maui wildfires, and the 2024 Texas Panhandle wildfires), we commend the Colorado legislature for taking a proactive approach to addressing these issues through encouraging the underground of overhead utility wires.

Undergrounding power lines presents a compelling solution to mitigate the escalating threats posed by extreme weather events and wildfires, exacerbated by climate change. By shifting distribution infrastructure below ground, the major cause of such wildfires is effectively eliminated: downed power lines igniting surrounding vegetation. Undergrounding can lead to wildfire risk reductions of over 98%, compared to other resiliency measures like prescribed power safety shutoffs which only reduce risk by around 65%. Additionally, undergrounding not only drastically reduces wildfire risks but also reduces the likelihood of power outages during severe weather conditions, safeguarding communities across the state.

While there is an initial increase in upfront costs associated with undergrounding projects compared to overhead, the increase in cost typically ranges from 2-3 times more expensive compared to the exaggerated figures of up to 15 times that are sometimes cited. New technologies have significantly lowered the cost (and are continuing to lower it further) and are reducing barriers to undergrounding in areas with difficult terrain. Lastly, factoring in the cost of vegetation management and that underground power lines necessitate less maintenance and are less susceptible to damage, undergrounding leads to lower overall costs and even pays for itself over time.

This bill extends beyond solely resilience and reliability by making an explicit commitment to equity and inclusivity. The 1% revenue allocation described in SB24-218 must go specifically to non-franchised areas in Colorado. Thus, the bill emphasizes the importance of ensuring all ratepayers, irrespective of their geographic location or jurisdictional agreements, have equitable access to the safety and reliability benefits afforded by undergrounding.

Scenic America commends and supports Colorado’s proactive stance towards addressing systemic challenges and advancing progressive and equitable energy policies. By mandating the allocation of a percentage of electric revenues towards undergrounding and community benefit investments, Colorado is laying the foundation for a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable energy future. Furthermore, the bill aligns with broader objectives of decarbonization and air quality improvement, positioning undergrounding as a linchpin in the state’s transition towards cleaner energy sources.