PG&E’s Fire Safety Plan Could Cut the Lights for Customers Outside Risk Areas

(Bloomberg) -- Anyone who gets power from PG&E Corp. could see their lights go out this fire season.

Even the millions of Californians who live outside risky areas could be left in the dark under a sweeping proposal the utility filed Wednesday. That’s because it wants regulators to approve the inclusion of more high-voltage lines in its power-shutoff plan for periods of elevated fire risk. PG&E filed for bankruptcy last week in the face of fire-damage claims that could exceed $30 billion.

“The core elements of our plan are to help reduce the potential for wildfires associated with our equipment,” Sumeet Singh, vice president of PG&E’s community wildfire safety program, said in an interview. PG&E would only cut off power as a “last resort” and will coordinate its actions with regulators and the state grid operator, Singh said.

All eyes are on PG&E and what the company plans to do to avoid another catastrophic wildfire after a string of blazes in 2017 and 2018 that pushed the company into bankruptcy. California’s other investor-owned utilities were also scheduled to file 2019 wildfire mitigation plans Wednesday with the California Public Utilities Commission to comply with a state law passed last year.

Here are some details of the plan, which requires approval from the CPUC:

PG&E’s Proposal

  • PG&E’s plan for 2019 would require an investment of $1.5 billion to $2 billion, and the bankruptcy shouldn’t impact funding for the safety programs, Singh said.
  • The company wants to shut power to high-voltage transmission lines in high fire risk areas. But because the way the grid works, that could mean others outside those areas could lose power.
  • Other plans include the installation of new cameras and weather stations in high-fire risk zones, trimming more trees with branches overhanging lines and conducting safety inspections for 735,000 electric towers and poles across more than 5,500 miles of transmission lines and 25,000 distribution lines. The utility also intends to install stronger poles and covered power lines and conduct more inspections of its equipment in high-fire threat areas.
  • “We don’t have all the solutions,” Singh said. “We put forward what we believe are all the right things for us to do based on extensive benchmarking with other operators in California and utilities in Australia that face similar challenges.”

A federal judge overseeing the company’s probation for a natural gas pipeline explosion in 2010 had said he was awaiting PG&E’s plan before deciding whether to impose his own severe fire prevention measures that could cost the utility an estimated $150 billion. U.S. District Judge William Alsup has threatened the company with criminal sanctions.

Just as PG&E was preparing to release its safety plan, a natural gas distribution pipeline it operates along a major thoroughfare in San Francisco exploded, igniting a fire that engulfed a stretch known for its bars and restaurants in flames. By Wednesday night, a leak from the pipeline had been contained and no injuries had been reported.

California utility owners Edison International and Sempra Energy filed their own fire safety plans with the state. Edison’s Southern California Edison utility also said it was “enhancing” its measures to shut off power for public safety. Its plan also calls for the removal of more trees, the inspection of all overhead lines in high-fire risk areas and the installation of fast-acting fuses that can limit power flows, high definition cameras and weather stations.

Sempra’s San Diego Gas & Electric said it would continue to harden its grid and trim trees near its power lines and monitor weather conditions.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.