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.