PG&E reaches $125 million settlement with state regulators for equipment-sparked Kincade fire
Pacific Gas & Electric has reached a $125 million settlement agreement with state regulators over the 2019 Kincade fire, which was ignited by electrical transmission equipment in a remote area of The Geysers geothermal field two years ago.
Under the proposed agreement with the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E shareholders would pay a $40 million fine to the state general fund and another $85 million for removal of abandoned transmission equipment throughout the utility’s territory, the commission said.
The proposal is subject to approval by commissioners at their Dec. 2 meeting. The agreement was informed by investigative findings of the commission’s Safety and Enforcement Division, which found fault with the maintenance and condition of a high-voltage PG&E transmission tower that remained energized for years even though it had served a Calpine power plant that no longer was active.
Though the tower was disconnected from the facility in 2006, a year after Calpine informed PG&E that it had “mothballed” the plant, the 230,000-volt transmission equipment not only remained energized, it was left with jumper cables suspended and unsecured that, over time, developed stress fatigue, the report said.
One of them broke and arced against the tower during extreme winds on the night of Oct. 23, 2019, igniting vegetation on the ground. The Kincade fire would go on to torch nearly 78,000 acres, destroying 174 homes and about 200 other structures, and injuring four people, the regulatory agency said.
“PG&E left abandoned equipment energized for thirteen years even though that equipment provided no benefit or convenience to the public,” the enforcement division report said.
Investigators also found photographic evidence taken during a May 2019 inspection that should have alerted line staff to potential problems, the report said. Moreover, the Kincade fire bore similarities to the 2016 Sawmill fire, which broke out at The Geysers just 3 miles away and resulted from similar issues that PG&E was aware of, the utility regulators’ report said.
The agency’s investigation was separate from one conducted by Cal Fire, which last year traced the wildfire, the largest in Sonoma County history, to the high-voltage electrical transmission tower in the Mayacamas Mountains.
It is also independent of a criminal case still pending in Sonoma County Superior Court, where PG&E is charged with five felonies and 28 misdemeanor counts alleging the utility recklessly caused the fire, causing great bodily injury, among other charges.
A PG&E spokeswoman said Wednesday that the utility disputes several features of the utility commission’s investigation. In particular, the company believed the Calpine unit served by the tower to be on “cold standby,” meaning it might be put back into use, spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said.
Echoing PG&E’s position as stated in commission reports, she said Calpine also continued to pay monthly service charges and had inspected the equipment as part of its wildfire prevention efforts.
“We will continue our work to make it safe and make it right, both by resolving claims stemming from past fires and through our work to make our system safer tomorrow than it is today,” PG&E said in a written statement. “As we’ve said previously, we accept CAL FIRE’s finding that a PG&E transmission line caused the Kincade fire.”
The company agreed to settle with the commission, despite disagreeing with alleged violations, in hopes it “will assist in allowing all parties to move forward with the fire, and permit us to focus on compensating victims and making our energy system safer,” the statement said.
The Kincade fire was sparked amid fierce, dry winds that had prompted PG&E to shut off power across upper elevations in the region, though the lines in the Geysers remained energized. Winds within 3 miles of the tower were clocked at 63 mph that night, the commission said.
Though less destructive than the North Bay firestorm two years earlier, it proved terrifying nonetheless, as it exploded over several days across a wide swath of northern Sonoma County, raising fears it would be driven across Highway 101 and through densely wooded areas along the Russian River in west Sonoma County — much of which burned last year in the Walbridge fire.