California power regulators cast doubt on Pacific Gas & Electric’s grid plans
California power regulators are poised to reprimand Pacific Gas & Electric for continuing to neglect its electrical grid that has ignited a series of deadly wildfires in Northern California and could order the utility to do be more vigilant in the upcoming months of hot, windy weather.
The expected rebuke from the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday would serve as official notice to PG&E that it hasn’t been doing enough to reduce the risks posed by a combination of crumbling equipment and overgrown trees susceptible to touching or toppling into nearby power lines.
It marks the first step in a process that could eventually lead to regulators revoking PG&E’s utility license as part of deal worked out last year while the company during bankruptcy, triggered by its role in a series of 2017 and 2018 wildfires that killed more than 100 people and destroyed more than 27,000 buildings.
As Pacific Gas & Electric exits bankruptcy, it’s not clear there’s anything fundamentally different about the California utility.
In a separate ongoing proceeding, a watchdog agency for the Public Utilities Commission is recommending that regulators reject PG&E’s plan for preventing wildfires for this year. The Public Advocates Office also cites the utility for trimming trees and replacing equipment in the lowest-risk areas of its grid instead of the most dangerous parts.
In a report, it blasted PG&E for “systematic weak management” that’s unnecessarily endangering people and causing delays that could result in a 20-year wait before its electrical grid is fully updated or “hardened” — about a decade longer than the company itself has estimated.
In its reply, PG&E described the Public Advocates Office’s critique as a narrowly focused analysis that ignores “the substantial progress, work on wildfire mitigation initiatives, and successes that occurred in 2020.”
The utility also highlighted a wide range of improvements and upgrades that it made last year to reduce wildfire risks, as well as the scope of deliberate blackouts during hazardous weather conditions.
After negotiating $25.5 billion in settlements to cover some of the losses caused by its past neglect, PG&E promised to reduce the chances of its equipment causing more wildfires, spending about $40 billion in the next decade.
But state regulators are now upbraiding PG&E for failing to focus on trimming trees around the power lines most likely to start devastating wildfires. The utility does most of its maintenance work around lower-risk parts of a sprawling service territory that provides power to about 16 million people.
It isn’t an isolated conclusion. A federal judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation for a 2010 explosion in its natural gas lines that killed eight people has repeatedly ripped the company’s management for its slipshod maintenance practices and is considering an order that could force the utility to deliberately turn off power more frequently to reduce wildfire risks.
Prosecutors in Sonoma County last week filed criminal charges against PG&E for a huge 2019 fire blamed on its equipment, accusing the utility of inadvertently injuring six firefighters and endangering public health with smoke and ash in a 2019 fire blamed on its equipment.
While accepting responsibility for causing that fire, PG&E denies it committed any crimes. That’s a contrast to the utility’s position last year when it pleaded to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for a 2018 Butte County wildfire that wiped out the town of Paradise.
The Public Utilities Commission’s action requires PG&E to file plans for fixing the problems cited by regulators and then report on its progress every 90 days. If regulators still don’t think PG&E is protecting public safety, they could escalate and ultimately choose to pull its license.
The focus on PG&E and the maintenance of its grid is intensifying after wildfires raged through Northern California last year. An exceptionally dry winter already has raised worries that conditions could be even worse this summer and fall.
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