What PG&E bankruptcy could mean for fire prevention efforts

21 January 2019

Published by https://www.sfchronicle.com/

USA -The pending bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. amid a flurry of lawsuits over the devastating Northern California wildfires has sparked widespread concern that the utility will be forced to halt a sweeping fire management plan it established in response to the controversy.

The Community Wildfire Safety Program, created by PG&E last year, put money and resources into setting up a wildfire monitoring center, hiring contract firefighters, establishing weather stations, implementing a power shut-off system and replacing wooden poles and fire-prone equipment.

But wildfire experts and energy policy officials said a bankruptcy judge will probably limit PG&E’s ability to invest in that program, endangering what many see as a crucial part of California’s effort to prevent future wildfires.

“How much can they really be depended on now to invest in solutions to the wildfire safety problem? The answer is not very much,” said Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “There will now be a very high cost for borrowing, and that should be a very big concern for the state because we don’t want to go into another fire season like last year.”

The utility has been blamed for as many as 17 Northern California wildfires over the past two years. The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection concluded last year that PG&E’s power lines caused several of the Wine Country blazes, a wind-driven series of infernos that killed 41 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 homes.

Investigators said downed electric lines or trees and branches that came into contact with the utility’s power equipment sparked eight fires in Sonoma and Napa counties, including the Atlas and Nuns fires, and Mendocino County’s Redwood Complex. Three smaller blazes, in Lake, Humboldt and Butte counties, were also ignited by PG&E equipment, according to Cal Fire.

The most destructive of the North Bay blazes, the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, remains under investigation.

The Camp Fire, which burned 153,000 acres, destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 86 people in Butte County in November, is also under investigation, but PG&E admitted that a high-voltage line had malfunctioned near where the blaze started. Thirty-five families in and around Paradise have sued PG&E, accusing it of failing to adequately maintain power equipment.

Andrea Menniti, a marketing and communications representative for PG&E, said the bankruptcy filing should not hamper fire prevention efforts.

“We expect this process will assure access to the financial resources necessary to support ongoing operations and enable PG&E to continue investing in our systems, infrastructure and critical safety efforts,” including the Wildfire Safety Program, Menniti said.

The utility has asked regulators for permission to raise nearly $2 billion from ratepayers over three years, starting in 2020, with more than half the proceeds going to cover its wildfire prevention work. If approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, the average residential customer’s bill would go up 6.4 percent, or $10.57 per month, in 2020.

The program includes preemptive blackouts in vulnerable communities during high winds, a controversial practice PG&E tried for the first time in October. The utility did not de-energize power lines during the Camp Fire, saying high winds and dry conditions never reached the threshold that would initiate a public safety shutoff.

Menniti said PG&E has stepped up tree trimming and vegetation management in an attempt to prevent damage to power lines or contact with flammable material, particularly in densely wooded areas. The utility has conducted safety inspections of more than 50,000 transmission poles and towers along 5,500 miles of transmission lines in high-risk areas, she said.

About 200 of the 1,300 weather stations planned by 2022 have been opened, allowing workers to better monitor temperatures, wind speeds and humidity, and provide instant fire danger assessments to state and local agencies, including the National Weather Service.

Nearly 600 high-definition pan-tilt-zoom cameras are also being installed in high-fire risk areas to help PG&E workers monitor for fires and initiate a quick emergency response when flames are spotted.

The utility is also putting covers on power lines in risky areas and replacing old wooden utility poles with stronger wood, composite and metal equipment that Menniti said would better withstand high winds, heat, falling tree limbs or flames. Burning wooden poles have been a hazard in several fires, falling across roadways, blocking escape routes and helping spread flames.

Fire experts say the focus on PG&E is, in many ways, a distraction from the real problem with wildfires in California, which is the tendency of communities to allow homes to be built in fire-prone areas.

Max Moritz, a cooperative extension wildfire specialist at UC Santa Barbara, noted that PG&E is required to run power lines to those communities regardless of the fire hazard.

“In a lot of those cases the vegetation wasn’t burning. The homes were burning,” Moritz said. “You can’t go into that environment and argue that it was climate change or that fuel management would have made a big difference. PG&E certainly must bear some responsibility because their infrastructure is what failed, but they aren’t building power lines out there for no reason. So some of the liability here should go back to those municipalities that approved those developments in the first place.”

LeRoy Westerling, a climate and fire scientist at UC Merced, said there are going to be more, larger fires in California as the effects of global warming intensify, but communities could do a much better job protecting people and homes with building and design codes.

“We put way too much focus on the particular spark that ignited a fire and not near enough focus on what caused a fire once it was ignited to become a huge conflagration,” said Westerling, adding that the fire ignitions in California have been declining at the same time the number of large, destructive fires has been increasing. “You can’t say that if we hadn’t had a spark at one time there would have been no fire.”

Mandating safer construction in already built-out areas where there is transit, he said, would both reduce fire ignitions and cut emissions of the carbon dioxide that caused the warming and created the fire danger in the first place.

The past 10 years have seen 11 of the 20 most destructive fires in California’s recorded history, and 15 of the 20 largest wildfires have occurred since 2000, with the two largest happening since 2017.

Wara, the Stanford energy policy expert, said it is unrealistic to think that the state would ever stop fire victims from rebuilding or moving back to their old neighborhoods after a wildfire. The most effective way to prevent ignitions, he said, would be for PG&E to more aggressively shut down power lines during extreme fire danger.

PG&E did just that on Oct. 14 when high winds and extremely dry conditions prompted it to cut off power to 60,000 customers in seven counties, including Napa, Sonoma and Lake. The move brought a raft of complaints, but Wara said the preemptive power shutoff may have prevented catastrophe.

During the shutdown, 50 mph wind gusts were recorded in the North Bay. The Kirkwood Ski Resort in the Sierra reported 120 mph gusts. PG&E reported 23 wind-related incidents during the shutdown, including 18 instances of equipment damage that could have resulted in fire. Falling trees and limbs damaged conductors, insulators, transformers, fuses, crossarms and poles, according to a compliance report released after the event.

“It irritated the hell out of people, but that’s 23 ignitions avoided,” Wara said. “It worked, but the key is convincing people to accept” future shutdowns.

To make things easier for residents and businesses during shutdowns, Wara said, state legislators may have to step in and help them buy generators, batteries and other backup power systems.

“Investing in customer side solutions is the more cost-effective and immediate solution,” Wara said. “The government can help with this problem” and bolster “the clean energy economy while creating jobs, because it takes jobs to install all this stuff.”

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a longtime critic of PG&E, said the utility has been a negligent “bad actor,” but he acknowledged that state legislators and local communities have a role to play in improving the situation.

“Climate change doesn’t start a fire,” Hill said. “It will spread a fire fast, “but if we engage in good vegetation and forest management, and do the work to clear the forest and have a utility that does the right thing, I think we can eliminate some of the destruction we have seen over the last two years.”

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @pfimrite

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