Undergrounding Overhead Lines

Undergrounding electric lines conversion and compliance.

Undergrounding Electric Lines And Equipment The California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) Rule 20 sets policies and procedures for the conversion of overhead power lines and other equipment to underground facilities, a process called “undergrounding.”

SCE supports undergrounding because it provides substantial aesthetic benefits to local communities.

Under Rule 20, undergrounding projects are financed by utility rate money, combined rate funds and local tax proceeds, or private funds, depending on whether Rule 20A, Rule 20B or Rule 20C provisions apply. View Rule 20 tariff, as approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Or, scroll down to Rule 20 on this page.

Rule 20A

Rule 20A projects are paid for by all SCE ratepayers, not just those who live in locations where facilities will be undergrounded. City and county governments choose these projects, using a process that includes public participation.

To qualify for full funding through utility rate proceeds, projects must produce a benefit to the general public, not just customers in the affected area, by satisfying one or more of these criteria:

  • The location has an unusually heavy concentration of overhead facilities.
  • The location is heavily traveled.
  • The location qualifies as an arterial or major collector road in a local government’s general plan.
  • The overhead equipment must be located within or pass through a civic, recreational or scenic area.
  • Using CPUC formulas, SCE allocates rate funds to communities for undergrounding based on previous allocations, the ratio of customers served by overhead facilities to all the customers in the community, and the fraction that customers in the community represent of all SCE customers.

Local governments use these formulas to project allocations, which allows them to prioritize projects and develop project schedules. Because funds are limited, local governments sometimes must wait and accumulate their allocations before starting an undergrounding project.

Rule 20B

If an area is not eligible for Rule 20A or if local government cannot or chooses not to rely on the Rule 20A allocation process, Rule 20B allows rate funds to subsidize an undergrounding project.

The subsidy includes an amount equal to the cost of an equivalent overhead electric system, usually about 20% of the total undergrounding project cost, plus the cost of removing the existing overhead system, which can be 5-20% of the total cost. The remaining cost is funded by local governments or through neighborhood special assessment districts.

Rule 20B projects must be sited along public streets or roads or other locations mutually agreed to by the applicant organization and the utility.

Rule 20C

Rule 20C enables property owners to pay for undergrounding electric lines and equipment if neither Rule 20A nor 20B applies.

New Rule 20 Regulations

After two years of study and development, the CPUC in June 2002 approved the first phase of changes designed to improve the scheduling, designing and construction of undergrounding projects under Rule 20. Basically, the new Rule 20:

Increases Local Government Flexibility

  • It adds “arterial” and “collector” to the types of location that qualify for Rule 20A.
  • It allows up to five years of mortgaging, or “saving up,” allocations levels by local governments, provided adequate utility capital and personnel are available.
  • It allows a local governments to use allocation levels as “seed money,” a value that the local government can borrow against to perform initial engineering & design studies for Rule 20B projects. In the event the project is not approved within 2-1/2 years after planning stages are complete, the city or county has 90 days to reimburse the seed money.
  • It provides that the cost of removing overhead facilities will be paid by the utility.

Improves Coordination And Communications Between Utilities, Local Governments And Residents

  • At a local government’s request, SCE will meet with government officials and residents to provide status on any Rule 20 project that has been approved.
    SCE will meet with local officials every 30 days, if the local government requests it, to discuss Rule 20 project construction.
  • The Underground Planning Guide for local governments is being updated by utilities and the League of California Cities to include the how to, when, where and why’s of undergrounding.
  • The utility will have a single point of contact to answer questions on Rule 20 for the general public. SCE’s contact is Tina Taverner at (951) 928-8264, or e-mail Katrina.Taverner@sce.com. Local governments can contact their SCE region manager or Rule 20 project manager.
  • A second phase of Rule 20 changes is currently under study. Topics include competitive bidding, incentive mechanisms, establishing a point after which no more overhead facilities will be constructed, and cost recovery for telecommunications undergrounding projects.
Questions And Answers About Rule 20

What is Rule 20?
Rule 20 is a set of policies and procedures established by the California Public Utilities Commission to regulate the conversion of overhead electric equipment to underground facilities, a process called “undergrounding”. Rule 20 determines the level of ratepayer funding for different undergrounding arrangements. See Rule 20A, Rule 20B, and Rule 20C bove.

Where can I find out if my neighborhood is scheduled for undergrounding, or get an undergrounding project started?
You should contact your local city or county government offices to find out if your neighborhood is scheduled for a Rule 20 project or to learn the process used in your locality for Rule 20A and Rule 20B projects. To find out how to begin a Rule 20C project, contact Tina Taverner at (951) 928-8264.

Will my neighborhood experience fewer power outages after our electric lines have been undergrounded? Will the outages be longer or shorter?
Our information is inconclusive. We believe, however, that in areas that experience frequent heavy winds, outages decrease when lines are undergrounded. In wetter areas, outages may tend to increase due to the effect of water seepage on underground equipment.

The information we have, while inconclusive, seems to indicate that outages tend to be longer with underground facilities, simply because it is more difficult to find problems and replace equipment underground.

Are underground facilities more or less expensive than underground?
Underground facilities are more expensive to install and maintain than overhead equipment. The cost of overhead equipment is about 20% of the cost of underground. Maintenance costs for underground facilities are also higher than for overhead.

How much of my SCE bill goes to undergrounding?
The average cost of undergrounding per residential customer per month is in the neighborhood of a nickel.

Does a project have to meet all the criteria to qualify as a Rule 20A project?
No. Just one.

Aren’t Rule 20A funds really the cities’ money?
As with all its capital spending, SCE is required to pay for undergrounding projects up front with money it raises through investor funds. The money is not collected from customers in rates ahead of time. Only after a project is completed can SCE recover the money it spent to plan and construct a Rule 20 project.

Does that mean that the allocations do not represent actual funding?
The allocations do not represent actual funding. They are a planning tool for local governments. They represent a qualified right to direct assign a portion of SCE’s anticipated capital budget to qualified Rule 20A projects. Some of the language in the Rule 20 tariff seems to suggest that the allocations represent actual funds, but that is not the case.

Did California’s energy crisis affect Rule 20?
The energy crisis and the financial crisis it created for SCE delayed undergrounding plans for up to two years. SCE was not able to fund allocations during that time. The crisis also resulted in a delay in changes to Rule 20.

Questions And Answers About New Rule 20 Regulations

I have Rule 20 projects under construction. Do the new rules affect me?
No. The changes affect future projects, not those under way.

What are arterial and collector roads?
An arterial road is used or is intended to be used primarily for fast or heavy traffic. A collector road carries traffic from minor streets to the major system of arterial roads, including the principal entrance streets of a residential development and streets for circulation within a residential area.

Did the latest changes include modifications to the allocation or the allocation formula?
No. The CPUC did not direct changes to allocation procedures.

One of the changes in Rule 20A rules indicates that the new rules allow up to five years of “mortgaging.” What does that mean?
Mortgaging allows a local government to use up to five years of allocation amounts before they actually accumulate. Essentially, the local government may borrow five years of allocation to complete a Rule 20A project. The purpose of mortgaging is to help cities start and complete large projects faster.

Can the local government demand the allocation?
SCE makes every effort to accommodate local government requests to mortgage Rule 20A allocations. Utilities, upon request by a city or county, may disperse increased allocation, as long as they do not exceed five years’ allocation. However, since funds come from the utilities, the utility has discretion of project participation, depending on resources available for Rule 20 allocations.

What has SCE done to change the coordination and procedural requirements between the utility and the cities?
SCE has taken the following measures to improve coordination and communications. We have:

  • Increased availability of SCE personnel to respond to questions and concerns from customers and local government officials, including a single point of contact.
  • Established this Web page to improve communications to customers about Rule 20 matters.
  • Begun revision of our Undergrounding Planning Guide for local government officials to make it more user-friendly.

The undergrounding process can be confusing. If we haven’t covered all of them here, please contact us with your undergrounding questions.