Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s undergrounding of two miles of new distribution lines in Potrero Hill has prompted concerns from residents about short-term parking shortages while the work is being done, a lack of construction competency, implications of the costly investment to future utility rates and a lack of transparency.
Hill residents are also worried that a low hum might emerge in the future, caused by the vibration of electrical currents under residential streets.
PG&E is building a new 12 kV (kilovolt) circuit – a closed loop network that provides a return path for the flow of electricity – between 465 Irwin Street and the Potrero Substation on 23rd Street to improve reliability and operational flexibility.
“San Francisco already has a network of 12 kV underground circuits. An audible hum from these existing circuits at street level is uncommon,” said Mayra Tostado, principal corporate communications representative for PG&E. “An additional 12 kV underground distribution circuit is unlikely to generate a hum at street level. The project does not involve (electrical vehicle) charging stations, as originally planned. The project team is in ongoing conversations with business customers, but there are no applicants. Capacity projects are funded by ratepayers,”
The new circuit will have the ability to convey more than 12 megawatts, enough to power roughly 9,000 homes. According to Tostado the additional capacity is largely to serve new customer load in Mission Bay.
J.R. Eppler, president of the Potrero Boosters, a neighborhood organization that advocates on behalf of Hill and Showplace Square residents, said that in general the electrical grid requires an upgrade as personal cars and vehicle fleets move from gasoline to electric.
“As with any infrastructure project, we can ask that construction be done efficiently to minimize disruption to neighbors. We also ask that neighbors understand that these disruptions are a necessary step in lowering our carbon footprint,” said Eppler.
The project, which began in February 2021, is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. PG&E refused to provide a map of planned construction, claiming it’d contain “sensitive” information. Roundly speaking the undergrounding is occuring on 24th, Illinois, Tennessee, 25th, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin Street, 20th, Arkansas, 16th Street, Connecticut, Hubbell, Seventh, King, and Third streets.
Valerie Bianquis, a 20th Street resident who has observed the work, said it’s her understanding that PG&E is using Utility Construction Services, LLC (UCS), a South San Francisco-based contractor.
The San Francisco Planning Department’s Property Information Map (PIM) indicates that in 2019 a planner was assigned to evaluate continued use of surface parking lots at 465 and 485 Irwin Street. The 48,000 square foot space had previously been used for AT&T fleet storage. PIM’s records show the sites are approved for a new tenant that’ll install EV chargers. The applicant for the permit was Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP, a San Francisco-based real estate law firm.
Bianquis said she viewed an order held by a City Department of Building Inspection (DBI) employee that stated that the charging station is for Zoox, an autonomous electric vehicle business Amazon acquired in 2020. A search of DBI’s permit and complaint tracking system reveals the most recent permit for the site, relating to construction of a cardboard baler, dates to 2014.
Zoox vehicles, which’re small and boxy, are intended for ride-hailing and ridesharing. They’re not expected to be utilized for package delivery, though they could be redesigned for that purpose.
Bianquis said the work is being done slowly and UCS has taken up numerous parking spots in the neighborhood in the process. She’s upset PG&E didn’t share information about the project’s purpose.
“They made us feel it’s an improvement for the residents’ electrical needs and safety where it really has nothing to do with us. In addition, the contractor broke water pipes four times in the last block because the water department didn’t note the locations properly. Are they going to charge us for this? Unfortunately, we are at their mercy. They have the monopoly for delivering electricity and gas. I wish I could change my carrier,” said Bianquis.
Tostado said PG&E apologizes for inconvenience to customers caused by the project. The utility mailed potentially impacted households letters explaining it and potential disruptions 30 and 10 days before work began.
“We take all concerns seriously. (We) encourage customers to reach out to PG&E should they have any questions or concerns about the work,” said Tostado.
Bianquis is worried that the increased distribution capacity might not benefit Hill homeowners.
“We don’t have underground lines. The safe route would be to put our lines underground, not new lines for a private company. I would love free electric vehicle charging,” said Bianquis.
The View contacted Zoox and Amazon, the San Francisco Department of Public Works, and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton regarding this article, none of whom responded.