The now-bankrupt PG&E has put together a contingency plan that would plunge millions of unsuspecting Californians into rolling blackouts reminiscent of the early 2000s (when the utility was last pushed into bankruptcy protection thanks to the market-manipulation hijinx of Enron and other electricity brokers), but as WSJ revealed in an explosive report published Wednesday – a report that was probably the result of months of battles between the paper’s lawyers and California’s Freedom of Information Commission – PG&E’s long history of deterring maintenance on its lines and towers, a practice that directly contributed to causing the deadliest forest fire in California history.
The utility knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage lines running in high-risk fire areas were at risk of failing and sparking a fire. And instead of acting swiftly to make the necessary upgrades, it appears the company routinely failed to identify the infrastructure most in need of maintenance.
Last year, a 100-year old line failed and sparked the Camp Fire, which eventually caused the deaths of 85 people. Documents obtained by WSJ – mostly internal emails and reports – revealed that the utility knew that 49 of the steel towers that carry the electrical line that failed needed to be replaced entirely.
For years, PG&E, which operates one of the oldest long-distance electricity transmission systems in the world, much of it having been built in the early 1900s, was able to get away with neglecting its lines and towers. But that changed in 2013, when California entered a punishing and prolonged drought.
It dried out much of the state, exponentially amplifying the risk of wildfires. In a 2017 internal presentation, PG&E said it needed a plan to replace towers and better manage lines to prevent “structure failure resulting [in] conductor on ground causing fire.” But inscrutably, the company opted instead to focus its efforts (and billions in capital) on upgrading substations, and instead labeled many of its transmission lines as low-risk projects.
Now, let’s look at the Caribou-Palermo line, the line that failed and caused the Camp Fire. PG&E delayed work on that line for more than five years, despite acknowledging that it, and dozens of aluminum lines and towers, needed urgent work “due to age.”
Similarly, PG&E’s regulators did nothing to change the company’s plans because no regulator keeps a close eye on these projects. PG&E told federal regulators it planned to overhaul the Caribou-Palermo line in 2013, yet no improvements had been made when a piece of hardware holding a high-voltage line failed last November, sending sparks into nearby dry grass and sparking the fire.
What’s worse, the company appears poised to make these same mistakes again as wildfire season progresses. PG&E has delayed maintenance work on several lines in Northern California’s highest-threat fire areas, including at least one near the Plumas National Forest, according to documents obtained by WSJ.
The company hasn’t detailed the scope of the work needed for each line, but it has disclosed that some require upgrades similar to those needed on the Caribou-Palermo line. Across northern California, WSJ able to identify dozens of lines in high-risk fire areas that were as old or older than Caribou-Palermo, and need similar types of maintenance.
One researcher at the University of Pittsburgh offered a damning assessment of their business model: “We have known for a long time that we are dealing with aging and antiquated infrastructure,” he said. “In a lot of cases, the business model was to wait for a failure and then respond.”
Unfortunately, forcing the company to make these repairs can be difficult without intense public scrutiny, given that none of the agency’s regulators has authority over the utility’s projects and maintenance work.
Whether this WSJ report spurs the state to act remains to be seen.