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High-voltage transmission lines complicate PG&E’s efforts to prevent wildfires

The heat was already a punishing force one morning in early August when a cadre of lawyers stood on a rugged ridgeline in northeastern Sonoma County and watched as a helicopter pilot deftly lowered technicians onto a high-voltage PG&E transmission tower.

The attorneys were official legal observers of another ritual tied to wildfires: evidence collection for lawsuits against the utility.

PG&E’s high-voltage transmission towers sparked both the 2019 Kincade fire, Sonoma County’s largest recorded wildland blaze, and the 2018 Camp fire, which killed 86 people in Butte County, according to Cal Fire. Court records suggest a similar piece of equipment — jumper cables — broke in both cases, sparking fires during hot and dry windstorms that pummeled parched Northern California ridgelines.

“The bravery of those workers — (they) deserve credit,” said Jack Weaver, an attorney who observed the evidence collection on Aug. 3 because he’s representing Kincade fire victims suing PG&E. “It’s not PG&E lowering itself down, it’s workers risking their lives to try to fix PG&E’s errors.”

As the state again careens toward the most dangerous time of year for fire, with temperatures at or near triple digits forecast for much of the next week, PG&E workers are engaged in a momentous effort to prevent another blaze.

A 2019 report by the utility notes transmission lines are less likely than the spiderweb network of lower-voltage distribution lines to be impacted when strong winds toss branches or whole trees into power lines.

Yet the Camp and Kincade fires suggest these high voltage systems are susceptible to a tougher foe — what state regulators have described as PG&E’s long term neglect of infrastructure the company is now working to counteract.

Executives face a fraught calculation: How and when to turn off the power to prevent fires while limiting the costly and potentially life-threatening effects of cutting electricity during a pandemic?

PG&E has vowed to reduce the impact of its power shut-offs by one-third — fewer customers, shorter duration — compared to the repeated shut-offs in October and November that put roughly 2 million Californians in the dark.

That’s likely to mean much of PG&E’s 18,000 circuit miles of overhead transmission lines — the mainline systems delivering electricity to the distribution lines that power communities — will remain electrified during risky fire weather.

“Transmission outages can really have an outsized impact,” said Matthew Pender, director of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program.

Cutting electricity holds “substantial value in taking off the peak, highest-risk situations right when the winds are high and there is a substantial risk of a failure, either something contacting our lines or our equipment failing — and the fire spreading,” Pender said.

But risk cannot entirely be eliminated for an electrical grid that exists in the natural world where trees and vegetation are constantly growing and climate change is creating hotter, drier autumns and winters.

Regulators and local officials are forcing the company to weigh the real economic impact of losing power for people and businesses, exacerbated during a pandemic.

In Sonoma County alone, four blackouts initiated by PG&E in October and November caused an estimated $105 million in economic losses.

“The consequences of being without power to families who are working and learning from home, to the critical facilities supporting our COVID-19 response, are not merely questions of inconvenience,” Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said Thursday during a virtual public hearing when she pressed PG&E’s new president on his plans for wildfire prevention power shut-offs.

Pender said he’s confident the utility’s goal of reducing the impact of fire safety power shut-offs is achievable.

PG&E left its towers energized during a windstorm that blasted Sonoma County Oct. 23, and that decision led to the disastrous Kincade fire. That night about 9:20 p.m. PG&E systems detected a power failure on a 230,000-volt line in The Geysers geothermal area.

The next day, PG&E mounted a public defense of the decision to continue delivering electricity through those lines, stating “those transmission lines were not de-energized because forecast weather conditions, particularly wind speeds, did not trigger the (power shut-off) protocol.”

“The wind speeds of concern for transmission lines are higher than those for distribution,” PG&E stated in a news release.

State Sen. Mike McGuire recalled getting an unexpected phone call about 48 hours after the Kincade fire sparked from then-PG&E president Bill Johnson, who has since left the company.

“Candidly, I asked him — we all knew there were hurricane-force winds up on the ridgeline — and I questioned him about not turning off the transmission lines that night,” McGuire said. “Honestly, he was trying to cover his backside. It was clear early on where that fire started. It was the oddest phone call I have received.”

Fueled by a succession of windstorms, the Kincade fire eventually burned 77,759 acres, destroying 174 homes and 374 structures in all. It caused the unprecedented mass evacuation of nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents from Geyserville to Bodega Bay, totally emptying Highway 101 corridor cities Healdsburg and Windsor.

McGuire, who has called for PG&E to be broken up, said he remains “deeply concerned” about the utility’s policies for cutting power and inspecting its aging infrastructure.

Yet legislators have struggled to pass meaningful reforms to wrest control from the utility and give the state more say over how PG&E maintains its electrical system and when Californians can be left in the dark.

McGuire’s Senate Bill 1312 to force the company to expedite the modernization of its electric infrastructure so it can avoid power shut-offs passed the Senate last month, but the proposal was among a handful regarding wildfire safety and utilities that weren’t even given hearings by the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee, the North Coast senator said.

“It’s egregious that this utility shuts off the power to our communities in rural neighborhoods, yet they leave the largest most powerful electric lines in their system energized,” McGuire said. “These lines have been the source of two devastating fires.”

When PG&E power lines and equipment started sparked disastrous fires in 2017, the utility already was on federal probation for the deadly gas explosion of 2010 in San Bruno that killed eight people and injured another 58. PG&E was convicted of six felony crimes, including failing to properly inspect and repair its aging pipelines and trying to interfere with a federal investigation.

More than 130 square miles burned in Sonoma County in 2017. More than 5,300 homes burned and 24 people died in the fires.The next year, the Camp fire started near the Sierra foothills town of Paradise. The utility would eventually plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the staggering number of lives lost during the Camp fire.

In the face of these fires and about two dozen other blazes since 2017, the nation’s largest provider of electricity was forced early last year into a complicated bankruptcy from which it has only recently emerged. At the same time, it has been playing a harried catch-up game to clear dangerous branches and trees from tens of thousands of miles of overhead power lines lines — about 50% of which deliver electricity in high fire danger areas, according to company records.

PG&E has withstood persistent and withering criticism from U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, who is supervising PG&E’s criminal probation for the 2010 San Bruno disaster.

Alsup has taken on the role of the utility’s chief reformer, requiring the utility to overhaul its electric line maintenance and tree trimming programs, and from the bench calling the utility a “recalcitrant criminal” for its safety lapses.

After the Kincade fire ignited, Alsup demanded PG&E explain the equipment problems at the origins of that fire and the deadly Camp fire a year earlier. PG&E lawyers revealed that jumper cables had broken at transmission towers linked to both fires. They said the utility would launch a systemwide examination to determine if there was a larger problem, even as they emphasized they had no evidence to suggest its jumper cables were prone to fail.

In his Aug. 7 order granting new criminal probation terms for PG&E, Alsup underscored the utility’s troubled history reviewing its aging infrastructure.

“State regulators have reported that the Butte County fire started when a PG&E C-hook, so gouged from decades of friction from swaying, fell off, causing the attached power line to fall onto the metal tower and spew sparks onto the wind-blown dry grass below,” Alsup wrote. “PG&E apparently had this hook inspected for wear multiple times prior to the fire.”

Pender, a 14-year PG&E employee, said he was part of the company’s immediate emergency response teams that went to both the 2017 fires in Sonoma County and the 2018 Camp fire. He saw destroyed neighborhoods and communities saw “how scary fire is.”

"It can behave unpredictably and it obviously can get to a point where it’s unstoppable in certain environments,“ Pender said. “We need to keep it from getting there. We need to keep it from starting.”

He said those experiences have totally changed the company’s understanding of wildfire. The company once viewed only a small portion of its 70,000-square-mile service area as at high risk for wildfires but now considers just over half of its territory to hold elevated risk for fire.

The utility is deploying a force of thousands to trim trees and replace old power poles with new fire-resistant ones. They are carving distribution line systems into micro grids to enable the utility to remotely turn off power for targeted areas.

Regulators required PG&E inspect this equipment once every five years. Pender said the utility will instead inspect assets like transmission towers annually.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” Pender said. “There are thousands and thousands of miles (of power lines) in the high fire threat area.”

Cal Fire investigators immediately collected evidence from PG&E’s Tower 001/006 in the Geysers where the Kincade fire started. More than nine months later, PG&E brought its lawyers and plaintiffs attorneys to observe its technicians inspect transmission tower jumper cables and replace equipment collected from the towers that might prove relevant to the lawsuits, Weaver said.

“The big problem is aging infrastructure,” Weaver said. “Even though I have every belief (PG&E executives) want to stop starting fires, they’ve kicked the can so far down the road that they can’t keep up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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