In the early days of the 2019 wildfire season last month, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. transformer near Mount Tamalpais failed, starting a quarter-acre brush fire. Two weeks later, another brush fire that swelled to more than 2,500 acres in southern Monterey County was linked to PG&E power lines.
No homes were damaged or people harmed, unlike in the deadly wildfires of 2017 and 2018 that were blamed on PG&E. But for California’s largest utility the two small blazes represent a potentially ominous start to the fire season, as it desperately tries to prevent causing any more disasters like the ones that led it to file for bankruptcy protection in January.
Over the past six months, PG&E has inspected and repaired hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines, expanded its array of weather stations and fire-watching cameras, begun to step up its tree-trimming program and implemented a more aggressive program to turn off power lines during extreme weather.
As the small June fires demonstrate, those actions might not be enough to prevent PG&E equipment from igniting more fires. But after years of deteriorating public trust, PG&E is trying to convey the sense that it’s doing everything it can.
“The unprecedented wildfire threat is real and growing,” said Sumeet Singh, vice president of the company’s community wildfire safety program, on a recent conference call with reporters. “More must be done to address the threat of wildfire, and we must continue to adapt.”
The utility has made major investments to expand crucial wildfire-related tools. Singh has said it is on track to spend $2.3 billion or more on fire prevention this year.
On mountaintops across Northern California, hundreds of new high-definition cameras and weather stations are helping first responders and PG&E watch for fires and better monitor the extreme conditions that make them more likely.
At the same time, the company added 231 weather stations to its existing network of about 200. It has set a goal of having 600 of the stations in operation by the end of the year.
The weather stations help PG&E watch for dangerous fire conditions, and the information they gather will influence decisions about whether to shut off power lines.
The new equipment is tangible evidence of the fire-prevention work PG&E has undertaken over the last two years. That work took on new importance after November’s Camp Fire in Butte County, which killed 85 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes, making it California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire. A PG&E transmission tower started the fire.
But PG&E can’t reduce the risk of wildfires through cameras and weather stations alone. It has also inspected about 750,000 of its power poles and towers in or next to high fire-threat areas this year, and the work is nearly finished.
The inspections unearthed more than 1,000 high-priority problems, such as worn or corroded equipment, weakened foundations or woodpecker holes compromising distribution poles, Singh said. Nearly all the problems were repaired by the end of May.
Some of PG&E’s equipment problems were too serious for a simple repair. A major Marin County power line was in such bad shape that the company is replacing 10 of the 11 towers on that portion of the line, which runs through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It has also permanently shut down the Butte County transmission line — a line that carries electricity at high voltages across long distances — that started the Camp Fire. Other lines serve the area.
PG&E has a long way to go to improve its transmission system, according to the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper reported on Wednesday that the company neglected its transmission lines for years, allowing parts of the system to age for too long despite knowing the fire danger that posed.
The article quickly caught the attention of U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing PG&E’s probation from the 2010 San Bruno pipeline blast. He ordered the utility to respond to each paragraph of the Journal’s report by July 31.
PG&E has said it does not “agree with or support the Journal’s conclusions,” but it acknowledged that wildfires in recent years “made clear that we must do more to combat the threat of wildfires and extreme weather while hardening our systems.”
On Friday, the company announced that it is now using satellites to detect wildfires. PG&E said the program has been in the works for years.
The utility has also expanded its practice of turning off power lines when dry and windy conditions raise the possibility that they could spark a fire. The shutoffs, which PG&E has already begun to implement, are not without controversy given their disruptive nature and potential impact on disabled people and others with vulnerable health conditions.
But some energy experts say they remain the best tool the utility has to greatly reduce its fire risk — at least for now.
“The main way that I am going to feel safer this year is not because PG&E has strung up some covered conductor or trimmed the trees back more,” said Michael Wara, the director of Stanford University’s energy policy program. “It’s because they demonstrate a willingness to turn the power off, even though it’s going to cost them politically and, potentially, financially.”
“I’ll take inconvenience over death,” he said.
PG&E is taking steps to limit the impact of shutoffs by installing devices such as remote-control switches that can help isolate parts of the electric grid reducing the area affected when the company decides to power down lines.
But it has not been able to complete everything according to its original schedule.
As of late June, the utility had completed only 20% of the enhanced tree trimming it wants to do this year. Company spokesman Matt Nauman acknowledged that PG&E is behind schedule, though he said the utility always planned to increase the pace of its work as the year progressed. PG&E still plans to prune or remove about 375,000 trees this year, he said.
Additionally, it planned to strengthen 150 miles of its riskiest power lines by covering bare overhead conductors and installing more resilient poles. By late June, the company had completed 44 miles — only 29% — of lines, but the company believes it will still meet its target, Nauman said.
State regulators recently approved the first wildfire plans that all investor-owned utilities are required to create annually under a new law passed in response to the 2017 Wine Country wildfires. PG&E’s plan laid out a number of specific deadlines for May or June, and the company did not meet all of them.
The wildfire plan is of paramount importance for PG&E not only because it is required, but also because a federal judge has made the company’s adherence to it a condition of its probation stemming from the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
Singh said the utility has been “very, very open and transparent” with regulators and the federal judge about its progress.
“Have we made substantial compliance against all these commitments, from my perspective? Yes, but we have not achieved perfect compliance,” Singh said on the conference call.
He called the number of safety risks PG&E found on its electric equipment inspections “unacceptable. We need to do better.”
PG&E’s compliance with the fire-prevention plan will ultimately be determined by the state Public Utilities Commission, based on input from a third-party evaluator.
Will Abrams, a 2017 Santa Rosa wildfire victim who has participated in the commission’s wildfire plan proceedings, is worried that PG&E’s efforts are insufficient. Abrams, a consultant in telecommunications and technology who helped implement emergency management systems earlier in his career, has studied PG&E’s plans and pressed the company for more detail.
He is unswayed by its reported progress and thinks the company needs to more convincingly prove that its work is making equipment safer instead of stressing the amount of equipment inspected, for example.
“When you dig into the details and look at the context, that’s where I think some of these don’t pass any muster,” he said.
But PG&E and the other major California investor-owned utilities — Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric — have been instrumental to at least one crucial firefighting technological advance the state has embraced.
Through a program called AlertWildfire created at the University of Nevada, Reno, California has greatly expanded a network of cameras that help first responders monitor the landscape for wildfires — much of it with financial help from the big three utilities.
Between Christmas and June, about 150 fire cameras were installed in California, more than tripling the size of the system, according to Graham Kent, director of the university’s Nevada Seismological Lab. PG&E has the largest investment to make, given the size of its service area.
“They have been giving support at the rate that we can push stuff out,” Kent said. “They’ve been very helpful in providing — as have all the other utilities — a path that allows us to grow as fast as we can physically do it.”
In practice, the cameras are not so much a mechanism to stop any fires from occurring as they are a way to help use resources effectively.
“It’s a tool that allows firefighters to understand exactly what they need to respond to a given fire,” Kent said. “You don’t need to chuck a bunch of trucks and helicopters at a fire that doesn’t really exist or is not that big of a deal, when 30 minutes later there could be one on the other side of the county.”
After years of scandals and fire-related disasters that eroded customers’ trust, PG&E still has a long way to go to prove to its most consistent critics that it’s improving, and that includes wildfire prevention work.
“PG&E has such a poor record of doing what they say they’re going to do (and) of being accountable,” said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network. “I don’t think the public is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. They’ve blown that years ago.”
PG&E is publicly conscious of the pressure it faces.
“The threat is real, it’s growing, and we’re going to continue to adapt … anytime we identify an immediate safety risk, we’re going to take action. We’re not going to wait,” Singh said. “What’s at stake is the lives of our customers and our communities.”