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Northern California utility says it will turn the lights off when fire risk spikes

By: Dale Kasler |

PG&E has long resisted the idea of shutting off electrified power lines to prevent wildfires, saying the public safety risks of putting communities in the dark was too high.

Until now.

Stung by accusations that its power lines may have sparked last October’s disastrous wine country fires, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. announced Thursday it will begin switching off the juice during periods of “extreme fire conditions.” The plan is part of a multipronged initiative the utility announced to tamp down wildfire risks, including trimming trees and vegetation adjacent to transmission wires more aggressively.

The plan to cut off power proactively during high winds is likely to get the most attention.

“We really view this as a last resort,” said Pat Hogan, PG&E senior vice president of electric operations. “It’s one public safety risk vs. another. We’re very cognizant that when we shut off the power, that creates a whole set of safety risks. You potentially impact hospitals, fire stations, police stations, traffic lights go out, garages don’t open.”

However, Hogan said “there are going to be times where the conditions on the ground are so extreme, that the potential for ignition, and the potential for spread if there was an ignition, is so high that we’re going to de-energize those lines.”

PG&E’s losses from the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras and Amador counties could surpass $1 billion, and the San Francisco utility is facing a Cal Fire investigation and a multitude of potential liabilities from last October’s wine country fires.

Scores of private lawsuits have been filed, and PG&E has told shareholders the losses from the October blazes could exceed the $800 million in liability insurance the utility carries for big fires. Last December, the utility’s parent PG&E Corp. announced it was suspending dividend payments to shareholders, a move that will save more than $250 million every three months.

Hogan noted, however, that Cal Fire still hasn’t determined the cause of the wine country fires. He insisted PG&E is implementing the safety campaign in response to climate change and the ever-increasing risk of wildfires facing California.

“This is in response to that new normal,” Hogan said. “It’s not a Northern California problem, it’s not a Southern California problem, it’s a statewide problem.”

The wine country fires, along with other blazes in Northern California, killed 44 people and reduced entire residential neighborhoods in Santa Rosa to rubble. With insurance claims exceeding $9.4 billion, the October fires were the most expensive in California’s history.

Cutting off electricity when fire risks flare up can be controversial, as when San Diego Gas & Electric Co. shut off power to 19,000 customers for about four days last December as a precaution during the wind-blown Southern California wildfire. The fires never reached the area covered by the blackout, and a county supervisor named Dianne Jacobdemanded a state investigation, saying the decision “left residents in even more danger.”

The Public Utilities Commission is reviewing SDG&E’s actions but hasn’t yet launched a formal investigation. The commission has previously ruled that a utility has the burden of proving that shutting off power lines is “necessary to protect public safety.”

Allison Torres, a SDG&E spokeswoman, said most residents accepted the utility’s explanation for last December’s blackout but “we often do get a little bit of backlash.” She said the shutdowns have been company policy since 2013.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a wildfire expert with UC Cooperative Extension in Eureka, said PG&E will have to give communities plenty of advance warning before shutting off power so residents aren’t left without a means of receiving emergency information.

“They’re going to have to do a lot of good community outreach so people will be prepared,” she said. Still, she called it “a reasonable short-term solution while they’re figuring out other things” to reduce fire risks.

PG&E, among other things, said it’s going to trim trees more aggressively, in some cases going beyond a directive issued to all utilities in December by the Public Utilities Commission.

“It’s really about removing those fuel and ignition sources,” Hogan said. PG&E is holding town hall meetings in the North Bay to communicate the strategy to property owners, and is getting positive feedback from most, he said.

He said the utility also will create a wildfire safety operations center at its San Francisco headquarters, along with a network of weather stations across its service territory, to do a better job of monitoring fire conditions in real time. Over the long haul, PG&E plans to invest in coated power lines and non-wood power poles, and to space power lines farther apart so they don’t come into contact with each other during high winds.

Separately, PG&E has been working with Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and legislative leaders on a strategy that will likely be a lot more controversial than trimming trees and shutting off power lines. The Governor’s Office, in announcing a fire safety initiative March 13, said it will explore legislation that would “update liability rules and regulations for utility services in light of changing climate.”

In particular, PG&E and other utilities have been pressing for relief from a legal doctrine, known as “inverse condemnation,” which has left them liable for fire damages even if they haven’t been faulty in maintaining their equipment. Last November the Public Utilities Commission ruled that San Diego Gas & Electric’s shareholders had to swallow fire-related costs the utility was trying to pass onto customers.

“We agree with the governor’s assessment,” Hogan said. “It’s flawed policy.”