PG&E proposes more potential shut-offs to prevent wildfires


PG&E Co.'s plans to reduce wildfires could include intermittent power shut-offs for many more of its customers, the company announced Wednesday (Feb. 6).

PG&E's new 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan outlines measures it plans to take to prevent its electric power lines and other infrastructure from sparking wildfires. Those measures include increased efforts to clear and trim vegetation near power lines as well as upgrade, inspect and monitor its electrical system.

But the biggest impact to its customers is expected to come from a nearly tenfold expansion in the number of homes and businesses that could have their power shut off during windy and dry weather.

PG&E officials said that as a last resort, any of PG&E's electric customers may have their electricity shut off for safety reasons when the risk of fire danger warrants, though the company is more likely to shut off power to those in high risk fire areas.

PG&E and all other investor-owned utilities were required to submit wildfire mitigation plans to the California Public Utilities Commission Wednesday as part of Senate Bill 901, which the state Legislature passed in August to help address the increase in wildfires across the state in recent years.

PG&E has been under particular scrutiny due to its role in sparking devastating wildfires in Northern California in the last two years. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Jan. 29 as a result of its liabilities and potential liabilities from fires in 2017 and 2018, which could total more than $30 billion. While the cause of the deadly Camp Fire in Butte County in November is still under investigation, PG&E equipment may have played a role.

PG&E "takes seriously the critical role it plays in preventing wildfires caused by electrical equipment in Northern California," the company said in its plan. "We understand the urgency of the situation, that lives could be at stake and that we need to move even more quickly."

Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network (TURN), an advocacy group for utility consumers, said the organization is reviewing the plan "for cost-effectiveness and redundancy," but that it is "skeptical about current management's ability to stop the company from igniting wildfires."

"It's hard to believe PG&E's plan is worth the paper it is written on," Toney said. "Again and again, PG&E has tried to convince us it is devoted to safety, and again and again that's been proven false."

"Mass power shut-offs are an emergency measure necessitated by PG&E's repeated criminal behavior," he added.

Other measures in PG&E's safety plan include:

• Clearing more hazardous vegetation along 25,000 miles of power lines in fire-prone areas, with 375,000 trees expected to be cut down this year, an increase from 160,000 in 2018.

• Installing nearly 600 new cameras to monitor more than 90 percent of fire-prone areas by 2022. The cameras will be made accessible to fire departments.

• Adding about 1,300 additional weather stations to monitor conditions by 2022.

• Increasing safety inspections of power poles and transmission stations in fire-prone areas by up to 400 percent from last year.

• Adding "stronger and more resilient poles and covered power lines," as well as moving infrastructure underground in targeted areas.

To mitigate the impacts of power shut-offs, PG&E also said it would work with communities in high fire-threat regions to create zones that provide power to central community resources when the power is off.

The wildfire safety plans submitted by PG&E and other utilities must be reviewed, modified as needed, and approved by the CPUC. The commission will hold public meetings to evaluate the plans, starting with a workshop on Wednesday, Feb. 13.

— Bay City News Service

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