Is PG&E responsible for California fires?

I woke up at 4:00 am the morning of October 27th. I went to my home office on the top floor and looked West out the window. All was black. Normally I can see lights from the homes on the ridge top and in the canyon as I look that way.

Normal view looking West from home office

The power was out due to the PG&E cutting power for more than 2 million California residents in what they call a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” or PSPS. Mass evacuations were underway too, with more than 200,000 evacuated in Sonoma County alone, site of the high wind, low humidity Kincade Fire.

Turning to what I know best, I started doing some research on the relationship between PG&E and the California wildfires.

Turning to what I know best, I started doing some research on the relationship between PG&E and the California wildfires. This is an issue that has consumed state legislators, driven the declaration of bankruptcy by PG&E due to liability for prior disasters, and put California residents at risk for power turn-offs, evacuations, complete loss of their homes and even death.

There are thousands of stories on this, yet I found three items that summarized this issue, two from the New York Times and a full-text report which was prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission in 2017 by the NorthStar Consulting Group as part of a mandated self-study of the safety issue at PG&E.

In August of 2015 the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) initiated an investigation to look into PG&E organizational culture and governance. The Commission wanted to assure that program priorities and resources achieved accountability and safety goals. An outside organization, NorthStar Consulting, was selected to do the study. The Final Report, “Assessment Of Pacific Gas And Electric Corporation And Pacific Gas And Electric Company’s Safety Culture.” was released in May of 2017. The “First Update” to this report was issued in May of 2019.

…the CPUC and the original NorthStar report identified numerous issues which added up to a lack of a safety focused culture at PG&E.

Even before the disastrous Tubbs Fire of October 2017, the CPUC and the original NorthStar report identified numerous issues which added up to a lack of a safety focused culture at PG&E. This included not enough field supervision and that front-line supervisors do not spend enough time in the field. Other management criticism stated PG&E executives and board members lack sufficient domain expertise. Because of organizational structure “safety efforts are disjointed.”

The 2019 Update reports PG&E has not implemented recommended increases in field supervision and efforts to increase supervisor time in the field “…is not progressing well. Activities performed to date have been limited. The implementation initiative largely consists of analytical tasks and activities (identifying resources, survey, analysis, and benchmarking) rather than concrete actions to increase supervisory time in the field.”

Bottom line is NorthStar believes PG&E requires detailed oversight from the CPUC. Since more than four years, and several major destructive wildfires have taken place since the beginning of the study, it is clear PG&E is not moving with sufficient urgency to take care of the safety aspects of providing gas and electric services to the people of California.

In February 2019 the New York Times published “PG&E Says It Probably Caused the Fire That Destroyed Paradise, Calif.” The lead paragraph of this article says – “Pacific Gas & Electric said Thursday that its equipment had probably caused the Camp Fire, the catastrophic November blaze that destroyed thousands of homes in Paradise, Calif., and killed at least 86 people.” A part had separated from a transmission tower, fell to the ground and started the fire.

And while PG&E was found not to have caused the 2017 Tubbs Fire that devastated parts of Santa Rosa and surrounding areas, they were found guilty to have caused the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, CA. PG&E…”has been criticized by lawmakers, consumer groups and others for not doing enough to reduce the risk of fires started by its network of transmission lines and conductors.”

In a March 2019 article, “How PG&E Ignored Fire Risks in Favor of Profits,” the New York Times discusses additional related background including how PG&E was found responsible for the 2015 Butte Fire in the Sacramento area, and four fires in the Napa area in 2017. Media reports say that PG&E equipment has ignited more than 1500 fires since they began state mandated tracking in June of 2014.

This article also talks about active transmission towers being used far beyond what PG&E called “their useful life,” including the tower that started the Paradise Fire. That tower was so corroded workers had to exercise extreme care if doing any maintenance. Further, these potential dangers were known internally as documented by company emails and employee depositions following the 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.

There is a clear climate related aspect of this as well. More frequent episodes of high winds and years of drought have increased the danger and accelerated the degradation of trees near power equipment. The sheer volume has made it exceedingly difficult for PG&E to keep up with maintenance routines to remove threats from foliage and trees. Once sparked, the fires grow in size very rapidly in wind-driven events.

So, there are big problems at PG&E. Next post we will get into some solutions that offer promise, both in terms of immediate use of technology and ways to start to migrate the corporate culture.

3 thoughts on “Is PG&E responsible for California fires?

  1. Great reporting, George!
    Diverting much needed operating and capital funding to shareholders is symptomatic of the corporate mentality that pervades our society.

    We are see this encouraged by federal and regional governments gutting environmental and safety regulations in favor of profits…resulting in…well…you covered it nicely, old friend!

    Let’s hear more!

    Liked by 1 person

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