California

PG&E can’t keep power on. Is wildfire risk turning California into a ‘Third World’ state?

The darkened traffic signals, long lines for gasoline and the sight of senior citizens laboring to recharge their medical devices have forced the world’s fifth largest economy to confront its vulnerability to wildfires — while exposing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to withering criticism about its aging power equipment.

For the seventh time in less than a year, California’s biggest electrical provider has deliberately shut off electrical power in a vast stretch of its service territory — this time on an unprecedented scale, throwing 1.5 million residents into darkness.

Is this, then, the future of California?

And will the blackouts always be this widespread?

PG&E., whose faulty power lines have caused dozens of fires in drought-plagued Northern California in recent years, insisted the latest power shutoff, which began shortly after midnight Wednesday, was an act of last resort.

Utility officials said it was necessary to protect the state from a repeat of last November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed much of the foothill town of Paradise in Butte County. Cal Fire said the Camp Fire was caused by a faulty transmission tower.

In doing so, the utility is in effect saying its power grid, which runs from the coast to Nevada and from the Oregon border to Kern County, remains so fragile that it could fail in high winds and cause another mega-fire.

Many state officials, however, remain mistrustful of the utility and wonder whether it acted rashly. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a fierce critic of PG&E, said the utility created a “Third World” condition simply to protect itself legally and financially while plunging millions into darkness.

“I strongly disagree with the binary position currently offered by PG&E — they can turn the power off and shut down the economy and livelihoods of millions in California,” he said in a letter to the Public Utilities Commission. “This situation is not acceptable nor sustainable.”

Outside energy experts said PG&E probably had little choice — but questioned whether the utility could have handled the mass blackout differently.

“This is the appropriate path to take until we have a safer grid,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program and an advisor to the Legislature on wildfire issues. “They want to err on the side of false positives.”

But Wara said PG&E, which had resisted deliberate blackouts until a year ago, has yet to perfect a “surgical approach” that would limit the power shutoffs to those areas truly at risk.

“It does appear they’re taking a fairly broad brush and conservative approach,” said Wara, whose own house in Mill Valley was without power. “It’s not clear that they need to black out everyone at 2 a.m. ... They need to master the art of responding to fire weather.”

Even as the utility began restoring power to thousands, Gov. Gavin Newsom again scolded PG&E for years of mismanagement and said residents should be outraged by the shutdowns. While deliberate blackouts should be used in dire situations, he called the mass scale of the latest shutdown “unacceptable” and added: “They have to do it with precision.”

Other utilities, notably the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which supplies electricity to Sacramento County residents, withstood the strong winds without resorting to blackouts.

The contrast with SMUD only added to the anger of blacked-out PG&E customers like Amber Greever, who lives near Coloma in rural El Dorado County. Even though the wind had barely rustled the leaves outside her home, she was struggling to cope with a myriad of problems. Among them: Without electricity to run her well, she had to shower at her mother’s house, miles away.

Asked about her frustration level, she said: “One out of ten? A hundred.”

PG&E’s wildfire pressure

PG&E officials have said they’re trying to be as precise as possible. In a notice Oct. 1 to the federal judge overseeing PG&E’s criminal probation from the San Bruno pipeline explosion, the utility’s lawyers said the company had installed “more than 160 sectionalizing devices that allow PG&E to limit the geographical impact of de-energization as well as accelerate the restoration process.”

Bill Johnson, PG&E’s chief executive, said late Thursday that these technologies have helped PG&E narrow down the size of the blackouts. The latest power outage was originally supposed to shut down 50,000 customers in Kern County, for example, but the company was able to reduce that to 4,000.

But he insisted that the enormity of the blackout was a function of high winds in multiple stretches of its territory. “This was a widespread event,” he said.

Still, some parts of the state are likely to go without power for days, creating chaos and frustration in dozens of blacked-out communities. Residents in El Dorado and Placer counties descended on hardware stores in search of $700 backup generators, only to find them out of stock.

Legal factors might also play into PG&E’s decisions. A legal doctrine called “inverse condemnation,” which is unique to California, makes utilities liable for damages when their equipment causes fires — even if the utility acted responsibly. PG&E has lobbied lawmakers to overturn this doctrine, with no success.

The Legislature did create a $24 billion insurance fund — which is 50 percent funded by ratepayers — to help utilities pay for damages from future fires. But as long as utilities remain legally liable for damages, PG&E will continue to do everything it can to eliminate risks, far beyond what a normal electric utility would probably do, said Jared Ellias, a bankruptcy law expert at the UC Hastings College of Law.

“They’re looking to create zero margin for error,” Ellias said.

And the situation isn’t likely to change anytime soon. PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy in January, is under intense pressure to avoid any more big fires. Like other big utilities, it had to submit a “wildfire mitigation plan” to state regulators earlier this year.

But while PG&E has said it’s spending more than $1.8 billion this year on enhanced tree-trimming and other measures to reduce fire risk, and has dramatically speeded up its work, it’s struggled to meet some of its own timetables.

Among other things, it told the federal judge that it had completed only 760 miles of an “enhanced vegetation management program” to prevent tree limbs from brushing up against electrical conductors as of Sept. 21. The goal for this year is 2,455 miles.

In a court filing to Judge William Alsup, PG&E said finishing the job “is dependent on its ability to significantly increase the number of qualified personnel.”

Monitoring the weather

Two months ago, a court-appointed monitor found that PG&E had missed 3,200 trees that should have been trimmed or chopped down. One of PG&E’s tree contractors had falsified records.

On the other hand, it has made progress on other fronts. For instance, spokeswoman Brandi Merlo said PG&E has installed 400 remote weather stations this year to “capture localized, real-time data related to temperature, wind speeds and humidity levels.” Its goal for this year, according to the PUC, was to install 200.

Compared to other big utilities, such as San Diego Gas & Electric, PG&E has been reluctant to impose deliberate blackouts to ward off wildfires. Its first big shutdown came last October and triggered widespread complaints from residents and local officials.

A month later, PG&E canceled a planned blackout for parts of the north state, including the area around Paradise, only to see the Camp Fire explode into the deadliest fire in the state’s history. However, utility officials have said they never planned to cut power to the transmission line where the ignition occurred.

In 2019, the utility has become zealous about deliberate shutdowns. As hundreds of thousands of households went dark early Wednesday, the company held firm, saying blackouts will have to be imposed for the foreseeable future because of aging, at-risk equipment and the rising risk due to climate change.

“We understand the impact that turning off power has on our customers and our communities. This is not a decision we take lightly. This decision is all about public safety. We took this step as a last resort,” Sumeet Singh, a PG&E wildfire safety program vice president, told reporters.

When asked for a timetable, Singh declined to say how long that would take or whether that would allow PG&E to stop imposing blackouts.

“It is a multi-year journey,” he said. He said the work is being done now “as quickly and expeditiously as possible.”

The same day the power went out, PG&E offered details on nine small wildfires that its equipment apparently caused this year. One fire in May, in Fresno County, occurred a month after vegetation crews had been through the area inspecting power lines.

That fire was caused when a 60-foot-tall tree fell into the power line. “It was rooted approximately 45 feet from the conductors, outside of the prescribed clearance zones ... the tree was dead when it fell into the conductors.”

PG&E reported it is making solid progress though on another component of the mitigation plan, involving equipment inspections, repairs and upgrades — essentially “hardening” its infrastructure to withstand higher winds and contact with other objects. That includes fixing power lines that are sagging too much.

Once PG&E turns off the power, it cannot simply turn it back on when the high winds subside. It must send crews out, they say, to ever line that was shutdown to inspect it for damage. PG&E this week is enlisting 45 helicopter crews and more than 6,000 ground troops to inspect “every inch” of the lines that had been shut down.

But that work is tedious. PG&E officials warned in some places it may be five days after red flags come down before power is restored.

The prospect of nearly a week of no power left Shingle Springs resident Murray Hunter, 78, worried. The fumes from cans of gasoline to keep his generator roaring left his garage smelling foul. At one point during the outage, he said the carbon monoxide alarm in the garage went off when the generator’s emissions drifted in from outside. But he said he’s most troubled that his landline was dead and cell phone service in the area is all but non existent.

“The worst part is if something happened and I had to call 911, I can’t,” he said Thursday.

The Bee’s Bryan Anderson contributed to this story.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
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