PG&E’s Response to Its Role in Paradise’s Camp Fire
Pacific Gas and Electric Company offered a statement and written responses to questions from FRONTLINE, which are included in full below.
As we approach the anniversaries of the devastating fires in the North Bay and Paradise, PG&E solemnly remembers those whose lives were taken. We acknowledge the survivors of the wildfires — those who lost loved ones, friends, neighbors and colleagues, or lost their homes, businesses and belongings. We also offer our respect and continuing gratitude to the many people in our communities and our workforce who are involved in supporting the recovery and rebuilding efforts. We will never forget these tragic events, which profoundly affected our customers, all of us at PG&E, and all Californians.
Q: The Caribou-Palermo line was almost 100 years old. The company knew that parts of the system were in need of repair.
PG&E’s most important responsibility is and must be the safety of our customers and the communities we serve. PG&E adheres to a maintenance program under which it determines repair and replacement priorities for transmission assets based on a variety of factors. Among the factors that PG&E considers beyond asset age are public and employee safety, system criticality, customer impact, asset health, maintenance records, inspection history, and operational considerations.
PG&E disagrees with any suggestion that it knew of any specific maintenance conditions that caused the Camp Fire and nonetheless deferred work that would have addressed those conditions.
The Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission Line has two sections: a northern section and a southern section. Both sections of the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission Line have been permanently de-energized. The northern section of the line is approximately 36 miles long and runs from Caribou Powerhouse to the Big Bend Switching Station. This section of the line is supported by single-circuit towers that carry only one transmission line—the now de-energized Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission Line. Tower :27/222, where the Camp Fire originated, is located along this section.
PG&E has committed to sharing the results of its Wildfire Safety Inspection Program (WSIP) inspections of transmission, distribution and substation assets with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), as well as other stakeholders, including our customers. PG&E has made the results of its accelerated and enhanced inspections and high-priority repairs completed by July 31, 2019 publicly available on its website.
As previously disclosed, during these inspections, PG&E identified a significant number of high-priority conditions on the Caribou-Palermo line. At the request of the CPUC, PG&E retained Exponent, an independent third-party scientific and engineering consulting firm, to conduct a records-based review of the transmission line.
Q: PG&E was considering de-energizing power lines in the area because of the high winds, but decided not to do so on Nov. 8, 2018. The Caribou-Palermo line was not under consideration for de-energization.
Over the course of two days, November 6 and 7, 2018, PG&E informed approximately 70,000 customers in parts of nine counties that the company might need to proactively turn off power for public safety. By the afternoon of November 8, 2018, weather conditions had improved, and PG&E no longer anticipated the need to proactively de-energize.
As stated in PG&E’s 2019 Wildfire Safety Plan, PG&E is focused on maturing its Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) program to most effectively eliminate potential ignitions during extreme weather conditions. In 2019, lines considered for potential PSPS events will include all distribution and transmission lines at all voltages (500 kV and below) that traverse Tier 2 or Tier 3 HFTD areas. In comparison, lines considered for potential PSPS events in 2018 included all distribution lines and transmissions lines at 70 kV or below that crossed Tier 3 HFTD areas. This expansion of the PSPS Program increases the targeted distribution lines from approximately 7,000 circuit miles to approximately 25,200 circuit miles and the targeted transmission lines from approximately 370 circuit miles to approximately 5,500 circuit miles.
We know how much our customers rely on electric service and that there are safety risks on both sides. We understand and appreciate that turning off the power affects first responders and the operation of critical facilities, communications systems and much more. While customers in high fire-threat areas are more likely to be affected, any of PG&E’s more than 5 million electric customers could have their power shut off because the energy system relies on power lines working together to provide electricity across cities, counties and regions. Should we need to turn off power for safety, we will attempt to contact customers directly to provide early warning notification. We will also use our website and social media channels, and we will keep local news and radio outlets informed and updated.
Q: The Butte County District Attorney is investigating whether to bring criminal charges against PG&E for gross negligence and reckless arson regarding the events of November 8, 2018. He is exploring whether the company knew its equipment was dangerous before the fire.
PG&E is fully cooperating with the ongoing investigations into the Camp Fire.
Q: PG&E equipment has been linked to at least half of California’s most destructive fires since 2015.
It is true that environmental changes have fundamentally altered wildfire risk in the State of California, including, in particular, PG&E’s service territory in recent years. The combined effects of record drought and heat, unprecedented tree mortality, and extreme wind events have greatly exacerbated the risk and destructiveness of California wildfires.
PG&E understands the magnitude of the challenges it faces in reducing wildfire risk and the responsibility it owes all Californians to address those risks. The October 2017 wildfires and the Camp Fire have demonstrated the new normal of significantly increased wildfire risk. PG&E understands that it must do more than ever before to address this new risk profile.
Since the Camp Fire, PG&E has fundamentally changed its approach in light of the new increased risk environment by, among other things, comprehensively inspecting its transmission, distribution and substation assets in elevated and extreme fire-threat areas before the 2019 fire season. As PG&E reported on June 19, 2019, by that time, PG&E had addressed every highest-priority condition on transmission structures and at substations, and 97% of all such conditions on distribution poles. PG&E continues to take corrective actions to address remaining conditions.
These enhanced inspections are but one element of PG&E’s redesigned Community Wildfire Safety Program, first implemented in response to the October 2017 wildfires. That program also includes real-time, round-the-clock monitoring of wildfire risks from PG&E’s Wildfire Safety Operations Center; proactively de-energizing power lines when high winds and dry conditions, combined with a heightened fire risk, are forecasted; enhanced vegetation management work focusing on high-risk trees that pose the most wildfire risk; disabling automatic reclosing of circuit breakers and reclosers in high fire-risk areas during wildfire season; and system hardening efforts that include installing stronger and more fire-resilient poles and covered power lines, as well as targeted undergrounding.
Q: It is claimed by experts that historically the system has been maintained with some preventative maintenance but also with the philosophy that it can be run until it breaks, partly as a way of ensuring that costs for customers are not prohibitively high. Climate change means that the risks associated with this have increased.
PG&E adheres to a maintenance program under which it determines repair and replacement priorities for transmission assets based on a variety of factors. Among the factors that PG&E considers beyond asset age are public and employee safety, system criticality, customer impact, asset health, maintenance records, inspection history, and operational considerations. While PG&E—like all utilities—has to make decisions about how to prioritize work, it has done so based upon a multi-factored analysis that it has disclosed to its regulators.
Since 2010, PG&E has spent hundreds of millions on line preventative work, a category of work that supports the replacement of overhead conductors and devices on transmission structures operating at voltages from 60 kV to 500 kV.
As stated in PG&E’s response to Judge Alsup’s July 10, 2019 request for information, PG&E welcomes the growing public focus on the acute problem of aging transmission infrastructure. In its filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, PG&E has sought and continues to seek authorization to set the rates it charges for electric transmission services at levels sufficient to support, among other things, replacement of aging equipment over time. Going forward, PG&E hopes to work with all relevant stakeholders to re-calibrate the level of investment in transmission asset replacement that will be supported in light of the unprecedented wildfire risk California is now facing.
Q: In addition, please could you confirm when Tower 27/222 on the Caribou-Palermo line was last given a detailed in-person inspection (by climbing the tower)?
PG&E’s policies did not require routine climbing inspections of transmission lines below 500 kV (such as the Caribou-Palermo 115 kV Transmission Line) before the Camp Fire. Prior to the Camp Fire, PG&E policy called for detailed ground inspections of overhead transmission lines between 60 and 230 kV at least every five years, as well as aerial patrols of such lines every year in which a detailed inspection was not performed. In addition to inspecting and patrolling every transmission line mile on a routine basis, PG&E policy called for infrared inspections every five years for all transmission assets and as triggered by specific events.
Each utility with facilities under operational control of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), including PG&E, must submit detailed information regarding its maintenance practices to CAISO through filing a Transmission Owner Maintenance Plan, and also to the Western Electric Coordinating Council through filing a Transmission Maintenance Inspection Plan.
PG&E’s understanding based upon its records is that the last detailed ground inspection for Tower :27/222 before the Camp Fire was completed in August 2014. PG&E’s understanding based upon its records is that no new findings were reported at that time. Likewise, no new findings were reported for Tower :27/222 during PG&E aerial patrols conducted between 2009 and 2018.
As part of our enhanced wildfire safety efforts and as an additional precautionary measure intended to further reduce wildfire risk following the 2018 Camp Fire, we are conducting accelerated safety inspections of electric infrastructure in areas of higher wildfire risk. As part of our enhanced inspections for transmission towers, we are also climbing towers and using drone technology to gather additional data and information.