PG&E: New Probation Terms Will Bring More Blackouts

Pacific Gas and Electric will accept a federal judge’s proposed probation terms with certain caveats, but it warned the new requirements will lead to more power outages for its 16 million customers.

In this Oct. 9, 2017, file photo, a firefighter walks near a flaming house in Santa Rosa, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge’s proposed probation terms aimed at preventing another deadly wildfire sparked by Pacific Gas and Electric’s equipment will lead to more blackouts for customers, the utility said in a court filing Wednesday.

The impending conditions were proposed by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who oversees the utility’s criminal probation, after PG&E acknowledged that a tree suspected of causing the deadly Zogg Fire in September may have been flagged for removal but never removed. 

PG&E uses a complex risk model system to determine where to cut power to avert potential wildfires. The model considers wind speeds, land type, ground moisture and historic weather and fire data, among other factors, but it does not consider the number of unresolved tree hazards near power lines in a given area.

On Dec. 29, Alsup issued an order to show cause why PG&E should not be required to factor in the extent to which trees and limbs flagged for removal have been eliminated in its public safety power shutoff risk model.

The judge also proposed that PG&E specifically evaluate areas in which tree hazards are known to pose threats during high-wind events, even if those areas are not flagged for potential power shutoffs by its risk model system.

That proposal came after PG&E told the judge it could not name a specific employee who decided to keep sending high-voltage electricity to a power line that ignited the Zogg Fire because the line was never identified as one to be considered for de-energization by its risk model system.

On Wednesday, PG&E said it will accept Alsup’s proposed probation terms under certain conditions, but it warned the new requirements will increase the scale and quantity of power shutoffs for its 16 million customers.

“Under the proposed conditions, there will be larger de-energization events than would have otherwise occurred under PG&E’s current standards,” PG&E wrote in an 8-page court filing. “Residents and businesses of Northern California will therefore be subjected to more blackouts and the safety risks and disruptions that come with blackouts.”

The utility will accept both proposals so long as it can limit what tree hazards are considered in power shutoff evaluations to those tagged as “Priority 1” or Priority 2.” Those are regarded as the most critical threats near power lines, which must be resolved within 24 hours or 30 days, respectively.

PG&E said it currently lacks the infrastructure to quickly identify the locations of high-priority tree hazards across its system, but it plans to build the tools and systems to make that data available by July 1, pending Judge Alsup’s approval.

Because “Priority 1” hazards must be resolved within a day, the utility does not have a significant number of those outstanding at any given time. However, it normally has thousands of unresolved “Priority 2” hazards across its system.

PG&E said it will also develop a method to identify areas with tree hazards that could ignite a fire during strong winds even if its risk model does not flag those areas for potential power shutoffs.

The utility would tap experts to help develop that methodology through detailed assessments over the next three months, it said.

“Given the potential public safety risks posed by larger de-energizations, these analyses will need to consider how many customers may lose power in potential events and how long they may remain without power,” the company said.

If its counter proposals are accepted, PG&E said it will share with the court its finalized methods and plans for implementing the new probation terms within the next three months.

Alsup previously ordered PG&E to stop paying dividends to stockholders until it complies with state fire-prevention regulations and the goals outlined in its state-mandated wildfire safety plan. The judge also ordered the utility to hire its own team of in-house inspectors and to start tracking the age of its power components and replacing transmission tower components at risk of failing within 90 days.

Alsup oversees PG&E’s criminal probation for felony convictions related to the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. The probation term expires in January 2022.

In July, PG&E emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy after agreeing to pay $25.5 billion in settlements over claims that its equipment sparked a series of destructive wildfires in 2015, 2017 and 2018.

In June, PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter and received the maximum sentence, a $3.5 million fine, for its role in sparking the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that burned more than 153,000 acres, wrecked 18,800 buildings and destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County. 

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