California Officials Oppose PG&E Mandates That Could Expand Blackouts

PG&E is willing to consider all trees that could hit power lines when it decides where to cut power to prevent fires, but California officials say that approach could have unintended consequences.

In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, a Pacific Gas & Electric worker walks in front of a truck in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Pacific Gas and Electric on Friday agreed to accept new fire-prevention probation terms that are expected to bring more power blackouts, despite warnings from California officials and regulators that expanded outages will cause other major problems.

PG&E said it will consider the approximate number of trees tall enough to fall on its power lines, regardless of their health or distance from lines, when deciding whether to cut power during windstorms to prevent wildfires.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup proposed the requirement after a Feb. 3 hearing during which PG&E resisted a demand that it consider all trees flagged as potential hazards in its power-shutoff decisions. PG&E instead offered to factor in tree hazards categorized as “Priority 1” and “Priority 2,” which must be resolved within 24 hours and 30 days respectively.

Judge Alsup found the counter proposal “too restrictive” and unlikely to adequately protect Californians from wildfires. He suggested in a Feb. 4 order that PG&E account for all trees that could fall on its lines. He recommended using a ranking system to approximate the number of trees along a given line, such as “None,” “Few,” “Average,” and “Above Average.” The ranking would then be factored into the utility’s risk model system for identifying which lines should be potentially powered down during windstorms.

“Even healthy trees, if tall enough, pose a risk of falling on PG&E’s distribution lines in a windstorm, as counsel for PG&E stated several times at the hearing on Feb. 3,” Alsup wrote in his Feb. 4 order.

In a court filing Friday, the utility agreed to take into account all trees that could hit distribution lines in its risk model system.

The utility said it would employ techniques such as “aerial-based light detection and ranging (“LiDAR”) technology, which uses pulsed laser light to generate digital 3-D object maps,” to estimate how many trees could fall on a given line. In addition, the utility will also consider the number of “Priority 1” and “Priority 2” hazards for each line.

Despite PG&E’s willingness to accept those terms, the director of California’s Office of Emergency Services urged Judge Alsup to reconsider the proposed conditions in a letter to the court Friday.

Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci cautioned that power outages impair the ability to send emergency phone alerts and warnings to residents, hamper firefighters’ ability to pump water during fires and cause hardships for medically vulnerable residents and hospitals that depend on electricity to power medical devices.

Ghilarducci complained the new probation terms could “drastically expand the scope and duration” of power outages, adding that such blackouts should be a “tool of last resort.”

“Utilities should focus on all mitigation efforts to buy down the risks of wildfires, versus simply further expanding the scope and duration of PSPS events,” Ghilarducci wrote. “I urge the court to reconsider issuing this order.”

The California Public Utilities Commission also raised concerns about the proposed conditions in a letter Friday, noting that a requirement to factor in tree density “may unduly broaden PG&E’s [public safety power shutoff] events beyond the scope that has been vetted by safety experts and parties in ongoing CPUC proceedings.”

The regulator highlighted comments from stakeholders in its ongoing review of public safety power shutoff rules and procedures. The commenters argued that power blackouts should be a “last resort” and that their impact on emergency services and vulnerable residents should be weighed against the risk of wildfires.

“Without a thorough vetting of the February 4 versions of the proposed probation conditions, the CPUC is concerned that these changes to PG&E’s [public safety power shutoff] protocols may cause more public safety harm than good,” CPUC attorneys wrote in a letter to the court.

In a statement Friday, PG&E said it shares the court’s focus on preventing wildfires and is “working to operationalize and implement the newly proposed conditions” which build on “numerous existing programs intended to reduce risk across our system.”

A hearing on the proposed probation terms is scheduled for March 9.

Earlier this month, PG&E submitted the written testimony of two contracted tree inspectors regarding a gray pine tree suspected of causing the deadly Zogg Fire in Shasta County this past September. The tree was flagged for removal in 2018 but never taken down.

The contractors from Clear Path Utility Solutions LLC and CN Utility Consulting said they did not recall seeing the gray pine tree during inspections of the area in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Both inspectors stated that the tree appeared healthy and posed no serious risks based on their review of a July 2019 photo of the tree. One inspector noted that the tree appeared to have a “black base from being burned, which is a common situation and not a sign of an unhealthy tree.”

In a separate order Thursday, Judge Alsup demanded PG&E provide more information on the gray pine, which he said was “leaning more than twenty degrees from vertical on a downhill slope looming over the power lines.”

The judge ordered PG&E to hand over all work orders related to four gray pines in the area along with all pictures and videos of the trees, names of workers responsible for vegetation management in the area, emails regarding an enhanced patrol of the area that was cancelled in 2019, and all guidelines and instructions provided to contractors before the Zogg Fire.

Alsup also ordered PG&E to interview “all others who might have been involved” with inspecting the gray pine and provide written testimony from all employees at PG&E and its contractor Mountain G Enterprises involved in flagging the tree for removal in 2018 and to “identify all persons who knew or should have known that the gray pine” had not been worked (or postponed).”

PG&E was ordered to respond to those demands for information by March 3 and March 12.

Also on Thursday, Alsup proposed yet another probation term that would require PG&E to identify and remove any tree leaning toward one of its power lines and at risk of falling during a windstorm, regardless of the tree’s health. PG&E must respond to the proposal in writing by March 4 and a hearing was scheduled for March 23.

Judge Alsup oversees PG&E’s criminal probation for felony convictions related to the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. The probation term expires in January 2022.

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