Wednesday, March 20, 2019

PG&E Grapples with Line Safety After Camp Fire

By Hudson Sangree

PG&E last week reported additional problems with its transmission lines prior to the deadly Camp Fire, vowed to enhance its grid safety and asked state regulators to approve a more than $1 billion rate hike, largely to help it harden its grid against wildfires.

“We are acting decisively now to address these real and growing threats, and we are committed to working together with our regulators, state leaders and customers to consider what additional wildfire safety efforts we can all take to make our communities safer,” company CEO Geisha Williams said in a news release.

PG&E filed a supplemental report Dec. 11 with the California Public Utilities Commission, detailing problems with its lines near the Camp Fire on the morning the fire started. It also released the report to the public.

The Camp Fire killed 85 people and leveled the town of Paradise, Calif., making it by far the deadliest wildfire in state history. It started at 6:33 a.m. on Nov. 8 near Tower :27/222 on PG&E’s Caribou-Palermo 115 kV transmission line, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and PG&E reported.

NASA mapped damage to Paradise, Calif., from the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history. | NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the first time publicly, PG&E in its report provided detailed information about the problems it experienced on that line and in other areas of rural Butte County preceding the Camp Fire.

“On Nov. 8, 2018, at approximately 6:15 a.m., the PG&E Caribou-Palermo 115-kV transmission line relayed and de-energized,” the company told the PUC. “At approximately 6:30 a.m., a PG&E employee observed fire in the vicinity of Tower :27/222, and this observation was reported to 911 by PG&E employees.

“In the afternoon of Nov. 8, PG&E observed damage on the line at Tower :27/222, located near Camp Creek and Pulga Roads, near the town of Pulga. Specifically, an aerial patrol identified that on Tower :27/222, a suspension insulator supporting a transposition jumper had separated from an arm on the tower. The suspension insulator and the transposition jumper remained suspended above the ground.”

State fire investigators denied PG&E access to the site for a week but eventually requested the company’s help collecting evidence from Tower :27/222 and the adjacent Tower :27/221, with PUC staff observing, the utility said.

“At the time of the collection at Tower :27/222, PG&E observed a broken C-hook attached to the separated suspension insulator that had connected the suspension insulator to a tower arm, along with wear at the connection point,” PG&E wrote. “In addition, PG&E observed a flash mark on Tower :27/222 near where the transposition jumper was suspended and damage to the transposition jumper and suspension insulator.

“At Tower :27/221, there was an insulator hold-down anchor that had become disconnected. The insulator hold-down anchor is not an energized piece of equipment. After the evidence collection, CAL FIRE released the site. PG&E has not yet made repairs at either tower or restored service.”

Another incident occurred nearby on Nov. 8 at 6:45 a.m., when “the PG&E Big Bend 1101 12-kV circuit experienced an outage. Four customers on Flea Mountain were affected by the distribution outage,” the company said. The next day, a PG&E employee “observed that the pole and other equipment was on the ground with bullets and bullet holes at the break point of the pole and on the equipment.”

After the Camp Fire tore through Paradise in a single day, there was speculation that the Flea Mountain site or another site may have been a second ignition point for the Camp Fire, but so far those reports remain unverified.

PG&E said it’s continuing to investigate the Pulga Road and Flea Mountain incidents and two other reported problems with its equipment in the week following the Camp Fire.

“The cause of these incidents has not been determined and may not be fully understood until additional information becomes available, including information that can only be obtained through examination and testing of the equipment retained by CAL FIRE,” the utility said. “PG&E is cooperating with CAL FIRE.”

PG&E outlined its efforts to deal with wildfire threats in a report to the CPUC. | PG&E

In the meantime, PG&E said it would implement additional safety measures to decrease fire risks to threatened communities. The measures include inspections of more than 5,550 miles of transmission lines and 50,000 transmission poles and towers in risk-prone areas, increased vegetation management along its lines and more real-time monitoring of fire conditions.

By 2022, the company said, it will add 1,300 new weather stations, with one every 20 miles in high-risk areas, and install 600 high-definition cameras. The proposed steps align with measures already undertaken by San Diego Gas & Electric to prevent fires and avoid pre-emptive shutoffs of transmission lines in its service area. PUC President Michael Picker praised SDG&E’s long-term efforts Thursday and touted them as a model for the state’s other investor-owned utilities ahead of a commission vote to examine the practice of de-energizing lines in fire-prone conditions. (See Calif. Regulators to Scrutinize Line De-energization.)

PG&E is facing a snowballing number of lawsuits for the Camp Fire, billions of dollars in financial exposure for its role in 2017’s devastating wine country fires and talk of the state stepping in and breaking up the IOU and makings its pieces public. (See Camp Fire Prompts Talk of PG&E Bailout or Breakup.) It watched its stock price plummet in November before recovering some ground. (See Destructive Fire Drives Down PG&E Stock.)

The PUC said recently it would expand its probe into PG&E’s safety practices following the Camp Fire. That investigation started after the fatal explosion of a PG&E gas line in San Bruno, Calif., in 2010. (See CPUC Expands Probe into PG&E Practices After Deadly Fire.)

On Thursday, the company asked the PUC to approve a $1.1 billion rate hike to help pay for those additions and other upgrades as part of its 2020 General Rate Case before the commission.

“PG&E is asking for a $1.1 billion increase over currently adopted revenues for 2019” ($8.506 billion), the company said on its website. “More than half of PG&E’s proposed increase would be directly related to wildfire prevention, risk reduction and additional safety enhancements.”

Part of its Community Wildfire Safety Plan, the changes would include installing stronger poles and covered power lines across 2,000 miles of high-risk fire areas.

“As noted, this rate case calls for $1.1 billion in 2020, $454 million in 2021 and $486 million in 2022, respectively, to capture inflation and other cost escalation,” PG&E wrote. “If approved by the CPUC, this proposal would increase a typical residential customer bill by 6.4% or $10.57/month ($8.73 for electric service and $1.84 for gas service).”

The proposal doesn’t cover potential liability for the wine country fires or the Camp Fire, PG&E said.

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