PG&E Unveils Wildfire Safety Plan Featuring Possible Large-Scale Power Cutoffs

PG&E's new wildfire safety plan promises inspections of nearly 700,000 power poles and replacing those near the end of their service life with poles made of composite materials.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Bruised by two years of devastating wildfires involving its power lines and facing a federal judge demanding strong action to curtail the threat its facilities pose to the public, PG&E on Wednesday filed a fire safety plan that reverses a previous company policy that limited power shutoffs during periods of extreme fire danger.

The company said in a 179-page plan filed with the California Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday that starting this year, it will consider cutting electricity even to its highest-voltage transmission lines in high-risk areas when the fire threat is high — meaning it's possible that anyone in its 5.4 million customer service area could experience a blackout as a result.

The company, which recently filed for federal bankruptcy protection, says that the plan could cost as much as $2.3 billion this year.

The plan also details a major expansion of programs to inspect power poles and electrical lines and an accelerated effort to remove or trim hazardous trees near its equipment.

The new plan was mandated by a state law passed last year that requires utilities to develop enhanced strategies for reducing the risk that their equipment will spark wildfires.

The law, SB 901, was passed in response to the October 2017 Northern California wildfires that killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes. Cal Fire investigators have determined that PG&E equipment was involved in starting at least 18 of the fires.

Plan Filed in Federal Court

PG&E was also required to file its plan with U.S. District Court Judge William H. Alsup, who is overseeing the company's criminal probation for violating federal pipeline safety laws and obstructing a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster.

In a hearing in San Francisco last week, Alsup ruled that PG&E had violated the terms of its probation by failing to adequately inform probation officials that it was facing a criminal investigation in connection with the 2017 fires.

As part of the probation proceeding, Alsup had proposed imposing new terms that would require the company to undertake a crash project of facility inspections and vegetation management by the end of June.

The judge said his goal was "to reduce to zero the number of wildfires caused by PG&E during the 2019 wildfire season,"

The judge held off on a ruling last week, though, pending the filing of PG&E's wildfire plan. He made it clear, though, that he regards the wanted to see something stronger than mere "mitigation" — the term the CPUC had applied to the utility wildfire plans.

"If I were writing that plan and I were PG&E, I would commit to some very strong things and not just platitudes and not just use words like, 'We're going to mitigate,' " Alsup told PG&E's lawyers. "I would be writing that plan to solve this problem for the good people of the state of California."

PG&E's filing with the court included its fire plan and a five-page memo in which the company's lawyers appear to be responding directly to Alsup's remarks.

"PG&E’s goal is not mitigation of ignition risk; it is elimination of ignition risk to the greatest extent, and as fast as, possible," the lawyers wrote. "PG&E acknowledges that preventing wildfires outright might be impossible, but nevertheless PG&E is approaching the issue with the goal of doing all that it can to make sure its facilities do not create public safety risks."

Transmission Lines Now Subject to Shutdown

The company's expanded power shutoff plan, under which electricity could be turned off on more than 25,000 miles of local distribution lines and 5,500 miles of transmission lines, is a break from past policy.

Both PG&E and the CPUC have pointed to the difficulties involved in turning off power when high winds, low humidity and hot weather trigger red flag fire weather warnings. The CPUC has pointed out, for instance, that de-energizing lines could take down communications networks and water supplies on which firefighters and other emergency responders depend. Shutdowns also pose a potential hazard to customers, like those who rely on electrically powered medical devices, who depend on a reliable source of power.

But in the wake of the 2017 fires, the CPUC granted wider authority for utilities to turn off power during periods of extreme fire danger. PG&E then adopted what it called a "public safety power shutoff" plan — or PSPS — similar to one put in place about a decade ago by San Diego Gas and Electric Co.

Last October, PG&E initiated one series of power shutdowns, which targeted local, lower-voltage distribution lines in areas particularly vulnerable to wildfire. In a follow-up report to the CPUC, the company said it had found damage or dangerous conditions in more than a dozen locations on the de-energized power lines, suggesting that turning them off may have prevented fires.

But PG&E chose not to de-energize lines on Nov. 8, when Butte County's Camp Fire started adjacent to the company's 115-kilovolt Caribou-Palermo line, northeast of Paradise.

Facing questions about why that line had not been de-energized in the midst of red flag fire warnings, PG&E said shutting down power to such a line was overly complex and required approval from the agency that manages the state's electrical grid. The grid manager, the California Independent System Operator, refuted that claim.

The company's new plan notes that while transmission line shutdowns will be considered only in areas identified by the CPUC and Cal Fire as areas of elevated fire risk, de-energizing those lines could have effects throughout its 70,000-square-mile service territory.

The company says it will begin alerting its 5.4 million customers to the possibility of power shutdowns by the end of March.

Expanded Inspections and Vegetation Management

But the power shutoff plan is just part of a much larger program. Major initiatives include:

  • An expanded vegetation management plan, in which the company says it will remove 375,000 potentially hazardous trees and clear brush and other potential fuels from 2,450 miles of power lines. The estimated cost: $338 million.
  • Inspection and repair of 685,000 power poles and 40,600 transmission towers in areas subject to high fire threats. Estimated cost: $800 million to $1.3 billion.
  • Installation of 150 miles of "tree wire" — essentially, insulated or covered power lines — in areas prone to high fire danger. The company says that's the beginning of a project to "harden" its power distribution system by installing 7,100 miles of covered line.
  • Replacement of aging wooden distribution poles in high-fire-risk areas with poles made from fire-resistant composite materials such as fiberglass. Estimated cost of new lines and polls and related work: $240 million.
  • Installation of 400 new weather stations and 70 back-country cameras to help improve fire-weather forecasting and early detection of blazes. Estimated cost: $13 million.

The company's document cautions that achieving all the work outlined in the plan depends on "the availability of equipment and qualified personnel, including third-party vendors and suppliers, as well potential legal or regulatory challenges to tree removal, vegetation management and system hardening."

The PG&E wildfire plan also says the company is working with experts to develop a system for a newly deployed advanced weather satellite can be used to spot and track wildfires.

The company also says it's launching an experiment that could provide limited electricity to communities in areas where power lines have been de-energized.

Power would be provided to grocery stores, gas stations and other "essential resources" in the so-called "resilience zones" by local or mobile generators. The plan says that a pilot resilience zone will be tested this year in the Napa County town of Angwin, on Howell Mountain, east of Calistoga.

PG&E's wildfire safety plan, along with those from other utilities, will be the subject of a daylong CPUC workshop next Wednesday.

Judge Alsup has asked for responses to the PG&E plan to be filed in his court later this month. He has not yet set a date for imposing further conditions of probation — which could include additional safety requirements for the company.

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