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PG&E cited for late maintenance work more often than other state utilities

By: David R. Baker |

California regulators auditing Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s work in the field cited the company for late repairs and maintenance jobs far more frequently than any other electric utility in the state, according to documents made publicin the wake of this month’s deadly Wine Country fires.

But the utility, whose upkeep of its power lines and other equipment has come under intense scrutiny since the fires began, says the high numbers of late repairs reflect its effort to tackle a backlog of maintenance work — not an ongoing safety problem.

In a series of audits conducted from 2013 through this year, safety experts with the California Public Utilities Commission examined PG&E’s maintenance of its electricity distribution network — its power poles, overhead lines and underground vaults — in nine administrative districts covering the Bay Area. Each audit typically examined the previous five years of PG&E’s operations in that district.

The most recent audit of PG&E’s work in Sonoma County, conducted in 2015, found 3,527 maintenance and repair jobs that had been finished past their scheduled due dates. A 2013 audit of PG&E’s North Bay division, which includes Marin and Napa counties, counted 9,520 repair or maintenance orders finished late and 3,270 still overdue.

The commission, whose auditing division is currently severely understaffed, counted more than 1,000 late repair or maintenance jobs in six of PG&E’s nine Bay Area districts.

No other California utility, or utility division, was found to have more than 1,000 late corrective actions in audits the commission performed from 2013 through this year. Only the Sacramento Municipal Utility District came close, with 993 late repair or maintenance jobs cited in an audit this year.

While PG&E is by far the largest of California’s electric utilities, covering roughly two-thirds of the state, other utilities have districts every bit as populous as PG&E’s Bay Area districts.

While it may seem paradoxical, PG&E spokesman Keith Stephens said, the higher late-repair numbers were the result of a decision by the company, years ago, to do more maintenance and repair work, not less.

Starting in 2008 and 2009, around the time that regulators at the Public Utilities Commission were increasingly focused on maintenance work, the utility made a concerted effort to chip away at a backlog of safety-related upkeep and repair jobs in the field, Stephens said. PG&E conducted more such work than in the past and did not always finish it on schedule. But most of the tasks cited as overdue by the commission had been completed several years before the commission’s auditors performed their reviews. In addition, some tasks had been canceled after the utility decided they weren’t necessary.

“As we moved from more of a ‘monitor only and fix when we can’ process, we were much more focused on getting work done,” Stephens said.

The utility was not fined or otherwise penalized for the late work, he said. Representatives of the California Public Utilities Commission did not respond to a request for comment on whether the regulatory agency considers the late repairs a safety concern.

Investigators with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, are looking at the possibility that power poles downed by fierce winds or electrical lines tangling with tree branches could have sparked the fires.

California’s larger utility companies break their service territories into administrative districts — PG&E has 19 — and the utilities commission tries to audit each district once every five years. That schedule does not always hold. The commission’s Electric Safety and Reliability Branch, which conducts the audits, reported early this year that it was seriously shorthanded, with 10 open positions on a staff that should have numbered 27.

Auditors review maintenance records for each district, then conduct spot checks of equipment in the field. They look to see whether the company’s employees are conducting routine equipment inspections as often as they should. They also flag specific problems encountered in the field, such as utility poles not marked with the proper “high voltage” signs or overgrown with vegetation.

The 2015 audit of PG&E’s Sonoma operations, for example, included spot-check inspections of PG&E equipment in Cazadero, Guerneville, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Windsor. Problems found include one instance of vegetation growing too close to a power line, one of vegetation obstructing the climbing space on a pole and several instances of improperly installed guy wires, which help hold a pole in place.