PG&E was aware of a 2013 assessment that wide-ranging work was needed on an aging complex of transmission lines and towers in an area scorched by a fatal wildfire last fall but didn’t schedule the necessary improvements until December 2018 — one month after the lethal inferno swept through the Butte County town of Paradise in November 2018, according to regulatory documents.
The power facilities that weren’t upgraded for years after problems were identified stretch through Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties in Northern California and include 115-kilovolt transmission towers located on the Caribou-Palermo line. PG&E reported an equipment malfunction on the same line occurred 15 minutes before the deadly Camp Fire erupted on Nov. 8.
The disclosures raise fresh questions about PG&E’s safety efforts as they relate to the company’s creaky complex of electricity lines and towers.
“PG&E keeps telling us they are now a new company and they are changing their ways. But how can we believe them?” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes parts of Santa Clara County. “They have said this numerous times before.”
In 2010, PG&E caused a fatal gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed a San Bruno neighborhood that is in Hill’s district. Federal investigators determined the explosion resulted from a disastrous combination of PG&E’s flawed record keeping, shoddy maintenance and lazy and ineffective oversight of the company by the state Public Utilities Commission.
The Caribou-Palermo tower malfunction was not the first indication of aging or faulty equipment in that area. Five transmission towers along the same line toppled during a windstorm in 2012. The replacement project was scheduled for 2013 but took until 2016 to complete, according to PG&E.
As part of PG&E’s annual request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for rate changes connected with its transmission lines, PG&E in July 2017 proposed that considerable work be undertaken for the Caribou-Palermo line.
“The Caribou-Palermo 115 kilovolt circuit was analyzed as part of the 2013 NERC Assessment,” PG&E stated, referring to an analysis by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC. The filing indicated the 2013 NERC study determined that more than 100 transmission lines lacked sufficient vertical clearance between the lines and the ground, between two lines or between the lines and structures.
PG&E stated in 2017 that it would embark on numerous repairs of the Caribou-Palermo system. The planned repairs and maintenance included new tower frames, steel poles, improved line tension and hardware upgrades.
On Nov. 9, PG&E revealed in regulatory filings that it had suffered equipment failures the day before on a tower located along Caribou-Palermo line outside of Paradise, where the fire is thought to have started. Workers in the area reported flames under the tower. Cal Fire investigators have zeroed in on the tower, collecting pieces of it as evidence, but have not issued an official cause of the deadly blaze that killed 85 people.
PG&E’s filings in July 2017 with FERC didn’t specify whether the tower that suffered the equipment failure was part of the planned upgrades on the complex of lines in December 2018, but PG&E spokesman James Noonan said Wednesday that the tower did not have a vertical clearance issue and was not included in the equipment scheduled for that work.
“The company is taking action right away to address any issues that pose an immediate risk to public safety, in advance of this year’s wildfire season,” Noonan said. “The company expects to complete the remaining inspections of its electric transmission lines by the end of March 2019, pending any weather or access constraints.”
State PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the agency is also investigating the Camp Fire.
“These investigations include examination of the role that PG&E assets may have played in the ignition of the fire,” she said. “The CPUC investigations of major incidents such as the Camp Fire typically include a broad range of issues pertaining to safety of utility operations and root cause of the incident, including historic maintenance and expenditures.
“If the CPUC finds that a utility violated California Public Utilities Code or CPUC rules and regulations, the utility is subject to fines of up to $100,000 per violation per day,” Prosper said.
PG&E sought bankruptcy protection from its creditors on Jan. 29, listing $51.7 billion in debts, because it faced a forbidding mountain of debts and wildfire-related liabilities that arose from the lethal infernos that torched Northern California in 2017 and 2018. A bankruptcy judge held hearings on Wednesday regarding the case, but key issues under contention were deferred until March.
“They had bad maintenance, failed record keeping with San Bruno, and now with their electrical system, it appears to be more of the same for PG&E,” Hill said. “One of the questions is, if PG&E was given money to carry out these repairs, why didn’t they spend it? Or did they divert the money to something else?”
State PUC documents showed that energy officials had been warning about the fast-aging system of transmission lines for the better part of a decade.
“In 2010 and again in 2015, the California Independent System Operator transmission plan identified the need to improve and upgrade this system to address potential overloads and power outages that would affect customers in the service area,” according to a May 2017 PUC filing and the improvements that were again proposed for the same line.
The regulatory commission is also to blame for the problems with PG&E, said Loretta Lynch, a former PUC Commissioner.
“The problem is the PUC acts like a lapdog and not a watchdog when it comes to PG&E,” Lynch said. “The PUC has let PG&E get away with anything it wants.”