Pacific Gas & Electric is damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
The decision by PG&E to cut power for the first time ever on the forecast of high winds with accompanying high temperatures and dry conditions to avoid fires from starting triggered more than a few angry responses from customers in impacted areas.
One couple I know near Placerville in El Dorado County was livid they were forced to be without power for two days and have threatened to sue.
PG&E has been slapped with mega-fines in recent years for its exploding transformers or fallen lines that triggered destructive and deadly wildfires.
They are being blamed as the primary culprit by the state and in lawsuits for this year’s Wine Country fires that burned 178,000 acres, killed 36 people, and destroyed more than 6,000 structures.
Keep in mind that if you are in the northern two thirds of California you are more likely than not a PG&E customer. They service more than 5.3 million households alone or at least 17 million people. So whatever happens in terms of PG&E being held liable for a wildfire as a ratepayer you’re going to get stuck with the bill. And even if insurance picked up all the cost which it never does you’ll pay through higher insurance premiums. Then there are the hundreds of millions of dollars government agencies spend responding to fires and their aftermath. Again you are on the hook.
PG&E did the responsible and logical thing by the pre-emptive turning off of electricity when the National Weather Service issued an extreme fire danger advisory due to low humidity, dry conditions, warm temperatures, and winds in excess of 55 mph. The California Public Utilities Commission requires electrical providers’ distribution system poles to withstand winds of 56 mph for 60 seconds.
PG&E creates plenty of reasons to question their business practices and motives when it comes to squeezing out profits. This is not one of them.
PG&E serves more than 70,000 square miles with a lot of challenging terrain to cover from the rugged North Coast with its harsh winds and rains and the snow-laden Sierra and Cascades to remote locations in the valleys and the foothills that are choked with tinder dry trees.
They do so with more than 134,000 miles of distribution and transmission lines.
A lot has changed since PG&E came on the scene 113 years ago.
More and more people are choosing to build homes and live in areas that are heavily wooded in rolling terrain with a history of high winds and dry conditions and the threat of wildfires. PG&E is also required to provide “universal service” meaning they have to maintain electrical service to virtually any location it is extended. If someone opts to build a rural subdivision on a tree-covered and wind swept hilltop five miles from the nearest existing PG&E line and provides the right of way and covers the cost of extending the lines PG&E has to service the homes.
It doesn’t matter that over time if no other homes are built along that five mile stretch to add more customers PG&E still has to maintain and when needed replace lines and transformers without charging those customers served by that line rates higher than those in a town where the cost of maintaining lines is offset by significantly more electrical customers.
Burying lines would eliminate wind damage but that comes at hefty price that would be borne by ratepayers. Underground distribution power lines typically cost $1.16 million per mile as opposed to $498,000 for overhead lines. Underground costs jump significantly in urban areas such as in Oakland where it is $2.8 million a mile and in San Jose where it is $4.6 million a mile.
Expecting PG&E, as required by law, to stay on top of all maintenance work regarding trees near power lines is a challenge in urban areas and daunting in wooded rural areas. The drought weakened a lot of trees accelerating trees being toppled in winds as the zone around power poles and lines where trees posed more of a threat widened considerably.
Whether PG&E with the questionable oversight of CPUC failed to address vegetation issues around power lines as they said they would when granted previous rate increases is a fair question.
That said PG&E is far from invincible.
By erring on the side of caution PG&E was acting responsible.
Some litigant lawyers argue the opposite saying winds never reached the speed in some areas that the National Weather Service forecast predicted. But here’s the rub. The PG&E system can’t be powered down instantly.
It was prudent to advise customers well in advance and to start de-powering segments of the system as winds started approaching the forecasted speeds. Anyone who has hiked ridges, hillsides, and mountain tops in Northern California knowns how suddenly wind speeds can accelerate. They also know when pressure systems move through — with or without moisture falling — the north state’s varied terrain can see substantially variations in wind within a few miles.
PG&E has a less than stellar record when it comes to safety as well as keeping on top of new construction work. Both shortcomings are major drags on the economy.
If they are unwilling to cut into profits to boost safety efforts by increasing tree clearing crews without waiting for a rate increase or adding construction crews to accelerate the addition of new customers, they need to flip the switch off whenever the continued operation of power lines to generate revenue threatens lives and property of ratepayers.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.