Regulator Urges Judge Not to Expand PG&E Power Blackouts

California regulators want more time to vet a proposal that could expand fire-prevention power blackouts, but a federal judge said the process could take too long and result in more wildfire deaths this year.

FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2020, file photo, a house burns on Platina Road at the Zogg Fire near Ono, Calif. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Less than 24 hours after investigators revealed the cause of a deadly wildfire involving Pacific Gas and Electric’s equipment, a federal judge questioned why state regulators are resisting a proposal aimed at preventing more wildfire deaths.

On Monday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, determined the Zogg Fire, which killed four people and burned more than 56,000 acres in Shasta County this past September, was caused by a gray pine tree that hit PG&E’s power lines. PG&E previously reported that tree may have been flagged for removal in 2018 but was never taken down.

To appease a judge’s demand that it alter its power-shutoff procedures in a way that would have prevented the Zogg Fire, PG&E agreed to consider the number of trees tall enough to strike its lines when it decides where to cut power. But state regulators and California’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) oppose the proposal because it could lead to more power outages.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) argues power blackouts should be an option of last resort, adding wildfire risk must be measured against risks associated with outages, such as the inability to send emergency communications and the loss of electricity to power medical devices.

During a probation hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup suggested the state agencies are not prioritizing human life above other considerations.

“We want to err on the side of public safety, not on the side of public convenience,” Alsup said.

CPUC lawyer Christine Hammond said the proposal should be vetted through a state regulatory process that includes hearing from people in rural areas that will be most affected by an increase in the scope, duration and number of power outages.

She said the state agencies are “dedicated to safeguarding the people of the state of California” and that their stance on this proposal is “not driven by political motivations.”

PG&E used LiDAR technology, which uses pulsed laser light to create digital 3D maps, to estimate the number of trees capable of striking its powerlines. The utility conducted a study to estimate how many power shutoffs would have occurred over the last 10 years under its current risk-model system compared to one that considers trees tall enough to strike lines in high fire-threat areas.

It found incorporating the new proposal would increase the number of power shutoffs over 10 years from 27 to 45. It would also increase the average duration of power outages from 23 to 28 hours and raise the number of customers affected by shutoffs from 95,000 to 124,000.

PG&E further estimates the new protocol would increase the percentage of trees that could hit segments of powerlines considered for de-energization from 66% to 94%.

The new methodology lowers the threshold for wind speeds that will trigger consideration for a potential blackout to 20 miles per hour. That change ensures part of the Girvan Circuit distribution line where the Zogg Fire started last year would have been flagged for de-energization, PG&E lawyer Kevin Orsini told the judge.

“The company believes this is the right approach,” Orsini said. “We share the court’s goal of expanding the program and not waiting until 2022 to do that.”

Despite those promising estimates, the CPUC notes that implementing the new protocol will cause power outages to triple in Trinity County and more than double in Shasta and Tehama counties. People in those communities will bear the brunt of hardships associated with preemptive blackouts, Hammond said.

“The comments we’ve received from those counties is that there is this transfer of cost and risk from the utility” to people living in those communities, Hammond said.  

Judge Alsup replied that it makes sense more power outages would occur in those rural counties because that’s where fire risk is greatest and where lives have previously been lost to wildfires.

“I looked at this map, and I was heartened,” Alsup said. “I guess the CPUC looked at this map and didn’t like it, but I looked at this map and the areas or counties that were going to be subject to more [public safety power shutoff] action were exactly the counties that have the most danger.”

Hammond urged the judge to let state regulators vet the proposal, verify PG&E’s estimates and solicit feedback from the public. But Alsup voiced concern that CPUC’s process might take too long and leave a less safe system in place when wildfire season starts in June.

“We do not have the luxury of time,” Alsup said. “There’s a fire season in less than 90 days about to start.”

After more than two hours of debate, Alsup ended the hearing without rendering a decision.

The judge asked PG&E to submit new estimates specifically showing show how power shutoffs in 2019 and 2020 would have differed had PG&E applied a new methodology that considers all trees capable of striking its powerlines.

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