Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has come up with a new way to decide where and when it will make investments intended to prevent its power lines from starting more catastrophic wildfires.
PG&E leaders said Friday that they’ve developed a model to calculate the risk that any portion of the electric system could start a fire and, if so, how much destruction the blaze would cause.
The model looks at the density and dryness of vegetation, the landscape surrounding power lines, the amount of homes nearby and the number of recent outages along a particular circuit, according to the company. Analyzing those and other factors will help PG&E figure out where it needs to focus most on tree trimming, equipment upgrades and inspections, said Matt Pender, director of the company’s community wildfire safety program.
“It allows us to target much better,” Pender said. “Our old model allowed us to target down to a county-level kind of concept, and now we’re at the city level. It’s just that much more granular in terms of where the risk is.”
PG&E announced the model as it unveiled its latest plan to avoid power line-caused wildfires, a document the state requires all investor-owned electric utilities to submit each year.
The plan must still be reviewed and approved by regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission, who are expected to make a decision by June. Commission spokesperson Terrie Prosper confirmed in an email that the regulatory agency’s Wildfire Safety Division has three months to review and approve the plan, and it can extend that period if warranted.
It’s an essential part of the state’s efforts to avoid more disasters like the ones PG&E repeatedly caused in recent years — a track record so deadly and destructive that it prompted the company to file for bankruptcy protection and plead guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter.
PG&E emerged from bankruptcy last summer, but it’s under suspicion of causing yet another deadly fire, the 2020 Zogg Fire that killed four people and destroyed more than 200 homes west of Redding. Authorities are investigating whether a PG&E power line started the fire.
The company touted its new risk model as the centerpiece of its efforts to prevent fires this year. But the plan includes other measures too, such as adding 300 more weather stations to monitor dangerous conditions and installing 135 additional high-definition cameras to spot new fires when they occur.
The utility plans to have 1,300 weather stations and 600 cameras by the end of next year.
PG&E also intends to conduct more rigorous tree-trimming efforts along 1,800 miles of power lines this year, aiming to create even more space between vegetation and electrical equipment in fire-prone parts of the state.
The company further plans to invest in costly upgrades — including stronger power poles and covered or buried wires — across 180 miles of line. That’s a little more than half the area PG&E covered in a similar effort last year, a change that Pender attributed to the company spending money more wisely thanks to the new risk model.
“Our bang for the buck is much higher,” he said.
But some critics are not convinced.
Focusing on tree trimming and preemptive power shut-offs is a fundamentally flawed approach, said April Rose Maurath Sommer, the executive and legal director of Wild Tree Foundation.
“Their focus continues to be, as far as I can tell, what are the two least-effective techniques for decreasing wildfire ignitions from utility infrastucture,” Sommer said. More effective and cheaper would be using “covered conductors,” or covering bare wires with plastic she added.
About 171 miles of high-risk wires and equipment were “hardened” in 2019 by putting them underground or adding insulation, the report said. The company plans to complete another 180 miles this year.
Sommer said the progress was far too slow to make a difference.
More important is if the preventative work is being done where it will have the most impact, said Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network consumer group.
“We continue to have a concern that PG&E in particular has not done a sufficient job in cutting down or trimming the trees that need to be cut down in the locations that they need to be,” Toney said.