California wildfires: Get ready for bigger, broader PG&E blackouts this summer

When PG&E engineered a deliberate blackout across Northern California last October as a wildfire safety precaution, it covered selected areas where the risk was highest. Fewer than 60,000 homes were affected in total.

The next PG&E fire-safety blackout will likely take in a much wider territory and affect far more customers — even in areas where the fire risk is minimal. And because most California utilities are connected via a single grid, there’s a possibility that blackouts imposed by PG&E could spread beyond PG&E territory.

Under intense scrutiny from regulators and an unsympathetic federal judge, the utility Wednesday rolled out a fire-safety plan for 2019 that calls for shutting power to vast chunks of its territory when winds kick up and other fire perils abound. It’s designed to curtail the type of deadly wildfires that drove PG&E into Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

“We are expanding the scope of our program,” said Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program.

In a filing with the Public Utilities Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. also promised to ramp up power-line inspections, remove twice as many trees as last year, install 70 high-definition cameras in remote areas and add 400 weather stations throughout high-risk regions.

The expanded program, an update on an initiative PG&E launched last March, is a requirement of SB 901 — the law enacted last fall that allows PG&E to pass along some wildfire liability costs to customers. Other big utilities had to submit fire-safety plans as well Wednesday.

PG&E unveiled its new plan with an additional audience in mind: U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who has threatened to impose draconian fire-safety restrictions on PG&E this summer. At a contentious hearing last week, in which Alsup accused PG&E of taking an indifferent attitude toward safety, the judge asked: “Why can’t the risk be zero?”

Utility officials, discussing the new PG&E plan, said eliminating all risk is probably unrealistic.

“We’re doing everything we can every single day to reduce risk,” Singh said. “To completely reduce the risk to zero is not practical from my perspective.” He compared the situation to the risk of boarding an airplane.

PG&E has estimated it could face liabilities totaling $30 billion from the 2017 and 2018 wildfires, including the Camp Fire last November. Cal Fire still hasn’t assigned a cause to the Camp Fire but is focusing on mechanical problems on a PG&E high-voltage transmission tower the morning the fire started. The fire killed 86 people and destroyed much of the town of Paradise, making it the worst fire in California history.

Alsup, who is supervising PG&E’s criminal probation following its conviction on six felony charges after the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion, is considering ordering PG&E to embark on a more aggressive blackout program this summer. He also wants PG&E to trim or remove any trees that could possibly fall onto its power lines.

The company is pushing back on his proposal, saying it would cost upwards of $75 billion and force it to remove at least 100 million trees. Its current plan calls for 375,000 trees to be taken down. PG&E expects to spend roughly $1.2 billion on fire safety this year.

One point of friction between Alsup and PG&E is the frequency of blackouts. The utility regards blackouts as risky, and wants to shut power “as a last resort,” Singh said. He added that PG&E is still evaluating the criteria it uses for blackouts, which are based on heat, lack of humidity, high winds and other factors.

In any event, he said the company is committed to a system that, when blackouts are imposed, will spread the impacts to much wider areas than before.

Under last year’s plan, PG&E kept the juice flowing to almost all of its high-voltage transmission lines. Transmission lines carry power to vast territories — as opposed to the more localized, lower voltage distribution lines.

This year, 5,500 miles of transmission lines will be eligible for shutoff, representing about one-fifth of that portion of the utility’s network. If any of these high-voltage lines get shut off, it could potentially “have a downstream impact on the distribution system” and create blackouts even in areas where the fire threat isn’t high, Singh said.

Most of the state’s utilities are connected to one another on a single grid, run by an organization called the California Independent System Operator, or ISO. Asked if the blackouts could spread to non-PG&E customers, utility spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said PG&E will work with the ISO “to determine how we can best minimize impact on the interconnected grid if we need to turn off a high-voltage transmission line for safety.”

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.