PG&E outlines $6 billion in spending on wildfire safety and grid upgrades over two years
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. plans to spend about $6 billion by the end of 2022 on a host of new technology and power grid work meant to reduce wildfire risk across Northern and Central California, where the utility’s equipment has been linked to a series of deadly and destructive fires over the past decade.
The spending includes a new computerized risk model to predict areas most prone to catastrophic fires, where PG&E will prioritize work to replace old power equipment, trim trees and make other changes.
A 1,013-page plan filed by PG&E with utility regulators on Friday also calls for more fire detection cameras and weather stations at key lookout points across its 70,000-square-mile territory, updating grid equipment with more resilient materials and limiting the areas where it cuts power during dangerous fire weather.
“The last few years have demonstrated how California’s wildfire season continues to grow longer and more devastating. We are continuing to evolve to meet the challenging conditions to more effectively reduce wildfire risk,” Sumeet Singh, senior vice president and chief risk officer with PG&E, said in a statement.
The two-year wildfire mitigation plan, which must be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in the next three months, comes as the utility is poised to finalize settlement payouts to people and businesses affected by disastrous firestorms, including the 2017 North Bay fires and the 2018 Camp fire that together killed more than 120 people and destroyed more than 27,000 homes and other buildings.
The damage caused PG&E to file for bankruptcy in 2019, opening a legal avenue for the company to negotiate $25.5 billion in settlements with wildfire victims, local governments and others.
PG&E is expected to begin making settlement offers to individuals sometime this spring. Victims have until Feb. 26 to finalize their claims against the utility.
In addition to the 2017 and 2018 firestorms, the settlement includes those affected by the 2015 Butte fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It does not include households or businesses with losses from Sonoma County’s 2019 Kincade fire, which erupted after the utility had reached a deal with victims from the previous fires.
The number of fires linked to PG&E power lines has driven significant distrust among residents about the utility’s plans to protect Californians going forward.
“Sunshiny day statements, safety-first mantras, all of that pat-yourself-on-the-back-PR really has to be accompanied by metrics for how we’re moving forward in a safe way,” said Will Abrams, a close observer of the bankruptcy process and vocal critic of PG&E’s wildfire safety work. He lost his Santa Rosa home in the 2017 Tubbs fire.
Abrams criticized the plan for offering few benchmarks that would allow others to gauge whether the utility it has met its pledges to judges and state regulators.
“Even if they have the best tactic, it still wouldn’t be effective unless they have the coordinated effort around it,” Abrams said.
The utility has pointed to climate change as an essential ingredient in the state’s escalating wildfire crisis.
Last year, nearly a record 4.2 million acres burned in California. The state has experienced 17 of the 20 largest wildfires in its recorded history in the past decade. Six of those 20 fires burned last year.
Some of those fires broke out amid a dry lightning storm that erupted across Northern California in August, including the Walbridge and Meyers fires in Sonoma County, the Hennessey fire in Napa County and 1 million-acre August Complex that burned through the Mendocino National Forest and is the state’s largest-ever blaze.
But regulators and judges have blamed PG&E’s aging power grid and faulty record for contributing to the risks, and fire officials have pinpointed the company’s equipment as the direct cause of many of the worst wildfires, including the 2017 Nuns fire and 2018 Camp fire, the state’s deadliest.
The Kincade fire ignited after a high voltage PG&E transmission line failed amid a windstorm in the Mayacamas Mountains, sending a spark into dry vegetation that erupted into a inferno, racing over the parched landscape down into the Alexander Valley and nearly into Windsor.
PG&E is under investigation for starting the September’s Zogg fire, which killed four people and destroyed 56,000 structures in Tehama and Shasta Counties. Cal Fire investigators collected PG&E equipment and part of a pine tree in the agency’s examination into the cause of that fire. The agency has yet to report its findings.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the utility’s probation for its criminal convictions related to the deadly 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion, lambasted the utility last week for failing to remove a pine tree located near the power line, calling it “criminally reckless,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Still, PG&E has touted its latest work as a sharp turnabout, pledging to plow more money and labor into brush clearance along its lines and overhaul its grid to be able to withstand the fierce windstorms that fuel many of California’s worst fires.
Last year, the utility’s crews pruned or removed trees with a higher potential for wildfire risk along approximately 1,878 miles of distribution lines.
The company installed stronger power poles and covered 342 miles of power lines — versus leaving bare wires — while putting 30 miles of power lines underground in Butte County.
PG&E reported that all of its electrical infrastructure had been inspected in area at most risk for fire and the company had installed 404 weather stations to improve its ability to predict dangerous weather.
The company also created six temporary microgrids to be used to limit the scope of its planned power outages on remote communities during times of extreme fire weather.
The company said it was able to use this strategy and others to reduce by 55% the number of customers who lost power in 2020 compared to the year before.
The new technology involves fire-spread modeling software that includes information about specific utility “infrastructure failures that can lead to ignitions that have the highest consequences for our communities.”
The risk-based analysis includes data about the two most significant factors in utility-sparked fires: vegetation contact and conductor failure.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.