Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), in a filing with state regulators last week, said it found 328 instances of damage to its power lines and hazardous situations during an extended safety shut-off that began Oct. 26 — suggesting its system remains vulnerable to wildfire risk despite ongoing and expensive upgrades.
- City and county governments, meanwhile, listed a catalog of complaints regarding PG&E's execution of the shut-offs earlier in the month. Californians should not have to put up with the utility's "self-imposed emergency," they argued, especially since PG&E has suggested the outages could continue for the next decade.
PG&E's report indicates that frequent safety shut-offs will continue until the utility is able to sufficiently harden its grid, according to Steven Weissman, a utility policy expert and former administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). But it's unclear when that will be.
PG&E cut power to around 941,000 customer accounts beginning Oct. 26 after forecasting strong offshore winds affecting high fire-risk areas in Northern California, the utility reported in a Nov. 18 filing to the CPUC. Multiple alternatives to shutting off the power were considered — like targeting specific trees that could fall into power lines — but PG&E decided that de-energizing its lines was the safest way to avoid a fire.
Utility patrols found 168 instances of trees and branches that had fallen into power lines during the outage, and had to clear them away before turning the power back on. In total, crews identified 328 instances of damage or hazardous situations — such as a branch that had become entangled with a power line, which could have sparked a fire if the lines were energized.
But not all areas have the same level of risk.
"This report provides little assurance that PG&E has a meaningful way to conclude that certain portions of the grid can continue to operate safely in red-flag conditions," Weissman, currently a lecturer at the University of California Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, told Utility Dive.
The shut-offs will likely continue until PG&E has sufficiently hardened its electric grid — but it's tough to pinpoint when the system suddenly becomes "safe," said Weissman.
"I've been trying to understand when that bell is going to ring," he added.
PG&E is facing some big challenges with its wildfire mitigation work. It has embarked on a large-scale vegetation management program, trimming away trees and branches that could fall into power lines, but this will not be a one-time effort, Weissman warned. "So there's not going to come a point where you can suddenly declare in advance that all lines are vegetation-safe."
"There's certainly room for trying to make the [shut-off] process more transparent, more efficient and more focused, but I think it's unlikely that anytime in the foreseeable future we're going to see an end to the use of this overall strategy," he added.
Local governments expressed strong concerns about previous shut-offs and PG&E's lack of planning in comments filed with the CPUC on Nov. 19. Between Oct. 9 and Oct. 12, PG&E shut off power to 60,000 residents of San Jose, according to Richard Doyle, city attorney. But the utility did not provide local officials with details on which geographical areas would lose power. Medical baseline customers — who are part of a utility assistance program due to medical conditions — were instructed to visit the PG&E website, which did not work during the event.
"The continuing failure of PG&E to provide accurate, necessary, and timely information to government entities remains the biggest problem," according to Doyle.
PG&E did not allow an emergency management liaison from San Jose to contribute to its decisions, and in some cases, the city identified inaccuracies in the utility's information — for instance, PG&E reported weather conditions that did not align with the National Weather Service, and its list of critical facilities did not match up with the city's.
Regulators should not take PG&E's explanations of on-the-ground practices at face value, the governments of six Northern California counties and Santa Rosa said in joint comments. During the Oct. 9 shut-offs, liaisons from Sonoma County were not allowed into PG&E's emergency operation center, where the utility coordinates and supports first-responder efforts.
Another point of contention is PG&E's practice of requiring other agencies and officials to sign non-disclosure agreements to access its customer data needed by local responders. Public entities should not be "negotiating obscurely drafted non-disclosure agreements with PG&E to access secure data transfer portals or customer information needed for public safety and local responses efforts," Doyle wrote in the filing.
Mindy Spatt, communications director with The Utility Reform Network (TURN), said their members had reported similar issues with the shut-offs: receiving inadequate notification and lack of support for medical baseline customers, for instance.
TURN intends to participate actively in the CPUC's review of de-energization protocols, Spatt said.
"You have to remember, this was a program authorized by the PUC. So the issue here is both PG&E's inability to operate almost anything successfully, and also the PUC's approval of the program which obviously didn't have sufficient safeguards for customers, especially vulnerable customers," she added.