Pacific Gas & Electric's (PG&E) effort to harden its electric system — a combination of installing stronger poles, covering power lines and undergrounding portions of its infrastructure to reduce the risk of wildfires — is likely to continue for another five to seven years, "long after I retire," PG&E Corp. President and CEO Bill Johnson told lawmakers on Tuesday.
The utility is working on upgrading its infrastructure and has so far completed work on 188 miles of power lines, according to Johnson's testimony to two subcommittees of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce — slightly less than 3% of the 7,100 miles that have been identified for system hardening.
- PG&E's infrastructure has caused multiple catastrophic wildfires in the last three years, bringing the utility to the forefront of regulatory and political attention in California. "There's a great deal of trust that has been lost between the utility and people," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who represents many cities in Silicon Valley in the utility's service.
Lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change heard multiple experts testify on Tuesday about the impact that wildfires can have on the power sector. PG&E's wildfire-related liabilities over the last three years drove the utility to file for bankruptcy last January.
The utility's service area is particularly prone to wildfires, according to Johnson's testimony. Prolonged drought in California killed 147 million trees between 2010 and 2018, adding fuel to the state's forests. High fire-risk areas have grown from 15% of PG&E's territory to more than half in seven years, exposing more than 30,000 miles of infrastructure to wildfire risk. Moreover, the utility estimates that approximately 100 million trees around its power lines have the potential to affect its infrastructure.
To counter this risk, PG&E has implemented a wildfire safety plan, which includes a mix of system inspection, beefing up efforts to trim vegetation near power lines, and hardening its infrastructure.
In its 2019 wildfire mitigation plan filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E described its system hardening program as an "ongoing, long-term (more than five years) capital investment program to rebuild portions of PG&E's overhead electric distribution system."
PG&E plans to replace overhead conductors with insulated conductors, install low-fire risk fuses and switches, and put up stronger poles. At the time, PG&E estimated that the 7,100 circuit miles of system hardening would take around 10 years to complete.
In his testimony, Johnson said PG&E intends to complete the hardening in the next 12 to 14 years. But after Rep. Eshoo asked how ratepayers could trust PG&E is putting safety first when it has only hardened 3% of its systems in high-risk areas, he said the utility might harden its system in five to seven years.
"I think one thing we learned this year is we have to get these programs shorter," he said.
PG&E faces two major challenges in completing the system hardening, according to its 2019 wildfire mitigation plan — lack of materials, like covered conductors, and qualified workers.
There are other ways utilities can address resilience, Johnson told the sub-committees, including deploying microgrids, investing in new technologies and adopting some form of storage, to reduce the dependence on transmission lines that cut through forests.
"We're planning to do many of those things ourselves starting this year," he said.
Rep. Eshoo also grilled Johnson on PG&E's public safety shut-off program. Last year, the utility preemptively shut off power to millions of Northern Californians during periods of elevated fire risk.
Specifically, she questioned how ratepayers can know that the black-outs are based on a careful assessment of safety concerns, and not just "turning off the juice to shield the company and its shareholders from legal liability."
PG&E decides when and where to de-energize its power lines based on a precise algorithm that takes into account wind speed, wind direction, humidity and fuel content, Johnson said. The program is not about "trying to get around the liability rules."
Johnson also elaborated on ways that the federal government could help utilities like PG&E address wildfire risk.
Congress should enact a "market-based, economy-wide carbon reduction policy that is effective, durable, affordable, and encourages innovation in both carbon mitigation and adaptation technologies," he said in his testimony. He urged federal lawmakers to consider implementing assistance programs for low-income ratepayers, who have to shoulder the costs of rebuilding and strengthening infrastructure. In addition, lawmakers should adequately fund federal firefighting programs, Johnson wrote.
"PG&E is urgently addressing the wildfire threat and increasing the resilience of our systems. We would appreciate Congress' partnership in that effort," he said at the hearing.
Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted PG&E's Johnson. He said the the PSPS program is not about trying to get around liability rules.