Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is about to emerge from bankruptcy, but the biggest energy issue facing California isn’t PGE’s finances, its corporate structure, or its ownership. It’s the power lines.
Power lines don’t know or care who owns them, whether the owner is in bankruptcy, or the state of the regulatory environment. They will stand or fall, function or fail in accordance with the laws of physics. Statutory, regulatory, and case law have no impact.
The power grid needs repairing and upgrading whether it is owned by PGE, California, or 13 different municipal utilities.
The anger directed at PGE by Gov. Gavin Newsom and others is understandable and justified.
The governor, the CPUC, and the Legislature must hold the company accountable and ensure public safety. To do that means fixing and upgrading the transmission and distribution systems – including thorough tree and brush clearance – as expediently as possible. Until the electricity transmission and distribution system is repaired and modernized, Californians will be facing an annual choice between blackouts and fires.
While PGE has been responsible for the worst of the fires and receives the lion’s share of the attention, this is far from just a PGE problem. Massive fires were caused by Southern California Edison equipment. The Getty fire in Los Angeles last fall also serves as proof that this is not just a problem for investor-owned utilities. The Getty fire ignited on power lines owned by the L.A. Dept. of Water and Power. Strong wind threw a tree branch from outside the tree clearance zone onto the lines.
The 2019 fire season also introduced Californians to Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). To reduce the risk of fires, the CPUC allowed utility companies to schedule PSPSs to attempt to prevent fires. However, one of the year’s most devastating fires, the Kincade Fire, was sparked by a higher voltage transmission line in an area where the distribution lines were already de-energized.
During inspections following last fall’s PSPSs, PGE reported finding hundreds of pieces of damaged equipment. While PSPSs have significant problems of their own, it is likely the shutoffs prevented additional fires. When faced with the potential of billions of dollars in liabilities from wildfires it is understandable why utilities would implement them.
Power shutoffs can’t be a long-term solution. During last year’s fire season PGE’s chief executive officer, William Johnson, warned we could see PSPSs for the next 10 years while they work on shoring up the electric grid.
Ten years of choosing between blackouts and fires is not acceptable or necessary.
PGE and Edison are normally responsible for maintaining their infrastructure, but these are abnormal circumstances and there is much that is beyond their control. Wind is stronger and more persistent than in the past. Climate change has made the forests more combustible. The grid was not built to withstand current wind forces, and fires are now exploding through communities like never before.
Land use decisions by local government have pushed development further into fire zones, increasing the consequences of a fire. Utilities have a legal obligation to serve. That means they must provide electricity to anyone in their territory regardless of the fire risk.
Rural areas are served by the least expensive technology, wooden poles that were installed decades ago. While acceptable then, those poles are now inadequate and need to be replaced.
Given that this problem is greater than PGE and considering the consequences of fires and impacts of PSPSs on public safety and local economies, the state needs to lead the effort to accelerate grid repair and modernization.
The state and the utilities should work together to implement a strike team approach to grid safety and fire prevention. All parties should be prepared to invest the money necessary to immediately put more crews in the field to inspect, repair, and upgrade the poles, towers, lines, and other equipment that poses a fire risk.
Those entities should work with Cal Fire and meteorologists to look at tower and pole locations in relation to terrain, prevailing wind patterns, and proximity to communities. Strike teams should be sent into those high-risk areas first where prevention can best protect people and property.
This effort will be costly, but it is money we would be spending anyway. It is better to spend it over two or three years instead of 10 years. PGE’s CEO predicting the PSPSs could last 10 years stemmed from his forecasted timeline for necessary inspections and repairs. Spending the money up front will compress the timeline and spare Californians a decade of blackouts and fires.
We should look at the money as an investment with the benefits far outweighing the costs. The firefighting costs for the Camp Fire reached nearly $100 million, not including the billions in damages and lost productivity, and the human suffering that can’t be measured but endures for years.
Policy makers, regulators and the utilities should continue the important work deciding utility liability, bankruptcy, regulatory reform, and PGE’s accountability. But regardless of who owns the lines, poles and towers, they will pose a risk until they are repaired.
Lloyd Levine is the former chair of the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce. Currently he is a consultant on energy, technology and environmental policies, and is a senior policy fellow at UC Riverside School of Public Policy, Lloyd@FilamentStrategies.com. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.