PG&E Details Probation Lapses

PG&E told a federal judge Wednesday that it had made progress but still fell short of meeting key terms of its probation designed to reduce wildfire dangers.

Specifically, the company acknowledged that it had yet reached quality standards for clearing trees away from power lines and had not met its own deadline to fix some 11,000 problems it found in a massive post Camp fire inspection of its transmission and distribution network.   

Judge William Alsup had ordered the utility to report on whether it was meeting all the terms of probation for its conviction in the San Bruno gas explosion case – specifically, whether it was meeting the mandates under the plan it submitted to state regulators early in 2019.

The company told the judge that while it knows it has “more work to do” on tree clearance and other wildfire prevention efforts, it has made “significant progress” in getting a handle on the wildfire threat. 

While the company had previously admitted it was struggling to meet deadlines on clearing trees from lines, it told the judge it actually exceeded its first-year target clearing trees around lines in 2,450 miles of its system.

But even after cutting more than one million trees in 2019, 22,000 trees still were too close to lines to comply with state regulations or could pose a risk of falling onto wires and sparking wildfires, the company told the judge, explaining that  “environmental issues, permitting requirements and customer refusals” were to blame for that, although some problems turned up too late to be dealt with by the end of the year. 

PG&E admitted separately that it failed to carry out aerial or foot patrols on 850 miles of its distribution system – inspections designed to assure that trees don’t grow too close to lines and spark a fire.  

The company told the judge it struggled in another area – meeting quality targets.

 Only 60 percent of its emergency tree clearance and trimming efforts passed initial quality verification tests, it said, far short of the 92 percent pass goal. The lapses meant the utility had to go back and recut thousands of trees to meet quality standards.

The utility told the judge it was making progress, however. A quality spot check in October showed a 98 percent final pass level –that is the final pass goal set by its plan -- but the overall rate stood at 96 percent, two percent shy of its goal, by the end of the year.  

PG&E also admitted that it had not fixed all the more than 11,000 safety problems uncovered during its massive post-Camp Fire inspections.

While the company checked some 50,000 towers and other transmission structures and 700,000 lower voltage poles last year, 4% of high-priority repairs in its distribution system had not been made, as well as 7% of needed transmission repairs. The company blamed the “temporary diversion of resources” from the public power shutoffs for the delays.

Despite falling short on some goals, the utility stressed the number of fires it sparked in high risk zones “declined materially in 2019 and there was no repeat of the deadly catastrophic wildfires that devastated Northern California in 2017 and 2018.”

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