Can Pacific G&E Follow San Diego G&E Approach to Wildfire Challenge?

PG& Pacific Gas & Electric
PG& Pacific Gas & Electric

PG&E’s role in the recent spate of wildfires is an issue being vigorously debated across the state. What the utility has done wrong and what it plans to do about it – or, more appropriately, what actions it may be forced to take – is being discussed with even a greater fervor.

What we do know is the following:

  • All utilities face the same challenge: Preventing power lines from sparking wildfires during period of high winds and extremely dry lands
  • They also address the issue with a similar strategy: shutting off power to homes, businesses and schools in their service areas
  • There is a range of prep work the companies have done and those that have done less can learn from those that have done more
  • The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates the companies, has refrained from ordering the utilities to adhere to a standard
  • Governor Gavin Newsom believes the solution to the fire risk is best provided through a technology solution that encompasses, among other things, infrared cameras and artificial intelligence-enhanced satellites to help with wildfire detection and response efforts.

Everyone is watching

The governor’s view of PG&E’s role is harsh and stringent, peppered with words such as “culture of ineptitude,” “slow to act” and “resistant to change.”

“For decades, PG&E failed to prioritize public safety,” he writes in Medium. “Their lack of safety investments left PG&E – and nearly half of Californians – with an antiquated electrical system that is vulnerable to weather events and not at all prepared for the more extreme weather associated with the climate change that has been predicted for the past several decades and is now here.”

He adds that the outdated infrastructure, lack of preparation and a “failure to lead and be accountable to their customers and communities” led the utility to an over-reliance on, and failure to execute properly, power shutoffs.

His vow: “This cannot – and will not – be the new normal.”

Looking at some of the key issues:

Sparks

“As good as we have been over the last 10 years, and as much investment as we have done, we cannot be good enough when it comes to protecting
our communities.” 
— Caroline Winn, San Diego G&E Chief Operating Officer
August 2019

The fact is, each of the state’s three publicly owned utilities face the same challenge with sparks. But their track records are vastly different.

  • Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric is the clear leader. The company has made great strides over the past 10 years – after some serious setbacks stemming from the 2007 wildfires that ripped through the San Diego area – spending $1 billion to modernize its power grid and focus on reducing fire risk.
  • Pacific Gas & Electric’s PG&E unit currently sits in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings with an unclear future and go-forward plans that have drawn criticism.
  • Edison Electric’s Southern California Edison is somewhere is the middle.

What has San Diego G&E done over the years to put itself in a leadership position?  Quite a bit, as it:

  • upgraded – to fire-resistant steel from wood – more than 14,000 poles
  • annually assessed the vulnerability of more than 450,000 trees located near power lines
  • moved 60% of its lines under-ground
  • created a network of 177 weather stations so it could monitor (every 10 minutes) wind speed, humidity and temperature in fire-prone areas
  • hired five full-time meteorologists who conduct modeling of potential extreme weather and fire conditions so the utility can plan ahead
  • added 16 high-definition cameras located on mountaintops

Going forward, San Diego G&E has some new ideas as well, including replacing thousands of poles over the next couple of years, getting a second helitanker and creating a program so customers can buy portable generators during outages.

Power Shutdowns

After first shutting off power in October as high winds swept Northern California, PG&E considered doing so again before the Camp Fire, which killed 86 people in November, but it ultimately decided that conditions didn’t
warrant such measures.
The Wall Street Journal
February 2019

Senate Bill 901, passage of which was driven by last year’s fires, requires the investor-owned utilities to articulate their wildfire strategies and estimate their costs.

Among other things, PG&E officials say they will shut down power lines (in excess of five million) more readily – but only as a last resort to keep customers and communities safe.

San Diego G&E, in fact, has a much quicker trigger finger than the other utilities in cutting power and has encountered criticism for doing so. The company has responded by saying power cuts always are a last resort.

Related steps:

  • insulated power lines and a rewired electrical grid so it can cut power to very small and targeted regions rather than thousands of homes at the same time (ala PG&E)
  • wireless sensors that automatically turn off falling lines before they reach the ground and ignite a fire

Oversight

“PG&E may or may not be able to figure this out. If they cannot, we are
not going to sit around and be passive.”

–Governor Gavin Newsom
November 2019

One thing is clear. There is enormous political pressure on PG&E, the CPUC and Governo. Newsom to solve the problem. The governor has been clear that he has limited patience with PG&E and that the state is ready to jump in if the utility “doesn’t figure it out.”

He adds: “We are gaming out a backup plan if PG&E is unable to secure its own fate and future.”

To lend the utility a “helping hand,” he’s asked Cabinet Secretary Ana Matosantos to serve as Energy Czar along a with a dedicated team of advisors.

“Ana (will) lead a dedicated energy team with Ann Patterson, our lead attorney on the matter, Alice Reynolds, our lead energy and environmental policy expert, and Rachel Wagoner, our senior legislative strategist, spearheading the Administration’s energy efforts,” the governor said. “They will work closely with other senior leadership in my office, outside legal, financial and energy advisors, and leadership across state government to game out every option and prepare a plan should the state need to intervene. All options are on the table.”

The rebuilt California Public Utilities Commission, meanwhile, has opened a major investigation into PG&E’s use of Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), and promises a total reform of the rules and regulations governing power shutoffs.

Solutions

“There are two basic mitigation strategies on the table: Don’t let them get started and find them while they are small enough to quickly extinguish.”
Gene Wolf Blog Transmission & Distribution World Magazine
October 2019

Shortly after the 2017 fires, the state issued a 660-page report that somehow ranked wildfires as California’s #5 safety risk, behind factors such as employee safety.

Setting that aside, Governor Newsom this year addressed the issue of infrared cameras and what they could bring to the battle. The fact is, the camera approach already is a proven concept for fire prevention, as early detection logically prevents spreading. He said the technology also can be useful to look at the impacts of fires on landscapes and to spot areas that can be subject to erosion, mudslides and other risks after blazes.

In PG&E’s case, its camera initiative is a West Coast’s AlertWildfire.org site partnership with the University of California San Diego and University of Nevada-Reno

The company has stated publicly, moreover, that it expects to have 90% of its service territory fitted with cameras in the next three years. It also promises to improve evacuation systems and how to alert people to wildfire threats.

Southern California Edison – which has been linked to the deadly Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties – similarly has installed, and is installing, fire-monitoring cameras in Orange County and plans to put more across its service territory in Southern California.

Going forward

PG&E’ future is very much tied to its Chapter 11 filing and to the law, AB 1054, that Governor Newsom signed earlier this year.  It requires the utility to implement huge investments in safety, links executive compensation to the company’s safety record and demands that every year the utility earn a safety certification from the state.

Everyone is watching.

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